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December 2, 2010

At Least Jesse Helms Didn't Mention Mohammed

Laura sent out an e-mail asking if any of us "ARTicles" bloggers would like to respond to the censorship situation at the National Portrait Gallery. Alas, I feel a creepy sort of onus on me, as a visual-arts person on "ARTicles," to say something. I don't think I have anything especially insightful or different to say, except, perhaps, that people ought to tell the truth when answering the inevitable, "What if it were an image of Mohammed?" question. But, for the record:

1. Once an item in an exhibition goes up, it shouldn't be taken down by a museum. (All right, if it turns out to be emitting toxic fumes--literal, not metaphorical--or is short-circuiting the phone system, or something...) Politicians' pressure to remove something from an exhibition is the sort of thing over which museum directors are supposed to resign, not into which they're supposed to cave.

2. "Taxpayer dollars" is a canard. Taxpayer dollars pay for a whole lot of stuff--and not just idiotic wars, as in Iraq--that a whole lot of individual taxpayers don't like. To argue that the Federal Government should get out of the culture business altogether (this means no more Medals of Freedom, no more National Gallery, including the West Wing, no more orchestras at state dinners, no more Poet Laureate, etc.) is legitimate, if extreme. But to argue that only certain kinds of art and/or examples of it, e.g., the Wojnarowicz piece, should be deprived of any Government "support" at all, even as negligible as being included in a temporary exhibition in a publicly funded museum, is indefensible. (If it is defensible, then remind me to keep my Tony Shafrazi autograph-model aerosol can nearby when that Thomas Kinkade painting goes up at the NGA.)

3. The reason why something like David Wojnarowicz's work wouldn't go up in the first place if it had contained an issue of Mohammed is because it's reasonably likely that somebody would be killed for putting it up. Yeah, killed. That's not likely to happen if/when the aggrieved image is that of Jesus Christ. Sure, it's not "fair" that because Christians don't issue fatwas for offending novels or cartoons, their religion is game for satirical criticism in public venues while Islam isn't. I suppose we should thank people such as Mr. Donohue of the Catholic League for not being willing to go quite so far in avenging offense as some Muslims are. It's irritating, though, when well-meaning people like Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik write something as scholastic as this:

"If a work of art depicted a Koran, or a Torah, or any other religious image in a way that might offend some of the devout, you'd first want to see if the offense was gratuitous, or necessary to the meaning and the substance of the piece. A simple, straightforward insult, whatever or whoever its target, is almost always boring art."

This is erroneous on three particular counts, and one general one: a) No, you wouldn't "first want to see if the offense was gratuitious"; you'd want only to see that it had to do with the Koran, period. b) Gratuitousness itself is often "necessary to the meaning and substance of the piece," whose very point might be flaunting gratuitousness, e.g., much of the work of Paul McCarthy. c) Simple, straightforward insults are not boring art any more often than any device (aching Romanticism, hyperrealism, monumentality, etc.) results in boring art. Actually, "simple" and "straightforward" are usually artistic virtues, and making a work of art that's an insult--think John Heartfield or Gerald Scarfe--isn't a bad idea. d) The whole "gratuitous" and "insult" business might make a nice debate for bright high-school students at Model U.N., but at a public museum in the West, the issue would simply be that a work of art satirically critical of the Koran or Mohammed would be a distinct hazard to a lot of people's health.

December 2, 2010 6:48 PM | | Comments (0)

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