Defending dung

Maggie Gallagher
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Posted: Oct 31, 2000 12:00 AM
One phase of the Art Wars came to an end in a New York courtroom recently when a Brooklyn jury took just 90 minutes to convict Dennis Heiner, 73, of criminal mischief, making graffiti, and possession of graffiti instruments. His crime? Throwing white paint on the portrait of the Virgin Mary laced with dung and porno shown as part of the "Sensation" exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.

Heiner proposed a novel defense. If smearing elephant dung on a portrait of the Virgin Mary was speech, so was smearing white paint on the elephant dung. "Answering speech with speech" is how Heiner describes it.

The thing is, if he'd been tried by a jury of National Endowment for the Arts grantees, he'd have a pretty good case. In her new, invaluable and shockingly intelligent book, "Exhibitionism: Art in an Era of Intolerance," cultural critic Lynne Munson lays bare the new, rigid art ethic enforced by government bureaucrats and official academicians. Heiner's project would fit right in.

"Postmodernism ushered in an established academicism which celebrated the contrary for its own sake. Suddenly, being shocking or offensive or just anti-art was the safest approach an artist could take," writes Munson. Where once the NEA offered support and recognition to a variety of artists of proven merit, today the exclusion of artists not working in the postmodern mode is "virtually systematic, with nearly all of the fellowships going to artists whose work was intended primarily to serve as social critique." "I'm not impressed by craft or skill," three-time NEA grantee and NEA panelist David Diao makes clear. "I'm more impressed by ideas and something that's driven by conceptual issues. ... for me it's always the culture that generates ideas, not individuals." This is why the NEA funds everything from Piss Christ to Finley Feces. One enterprising artist got the NEA to pay for his home's hydroelectric system. Another artist successfully got the NEA to fund a performance piece that involved shutting herself up in a concrete cube with some wild animals and building nests. But perhaps the ideal performance piece, as Munson reports one postmodern artist suggested, would be to invite an audience and shoot them.

But how can these brave new postmodernists fail to see that Heiner is a kindred spirit, indeed by rights one of their leading lights? In flinging his paint on a museum-certified piece of art, Heiner transgresses against the elitist conventions of the museum world, daring to see private museum exhibits as a fit canvas for his own conceptual rebellion against what Munson would call the NEA-funded "official art" of our time. Heiner's work is living proof of Munson's theorem: "Postmodern academic art had become Government Art." First funded by taxpayers, protected now by government police squads.

Oh, the NEA defenders pretend their favorite-funded artists are brave transgressors of the status quo, but the truth is that postmodern art has become as tediously and predictably formulaic as earlier forms of academic art: Find a taboo, break it. Add taxpayer dollars and publicists. Denounce Jesse Helms. Shake and repeat ad nauseum. Collect at the box office.

It took Dennis Heiner, the ultimate outsider artist, to find a live taboo within the art world that poses as taboo-breakers, and by breaking it expose the academy's shallow, rigid, sad hypocrisy.

Of course, Heiner was not tried by a jury of his fellow performance artists. A jury of regular folk, philistines unschooled in the postmodern formulas, saw only an old guy, upset at slurs over the Virgin Mary, who took the law in his own hands and tried to destroy a work of art that did not belong to him.

How bourgeois can you get?