Shock and Awful Art

Posted: Oct 22, 2010 12:01 AM
Shock and Awful Art

Rocco Landesman is the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Boy, does he know how to spin the official line on offensive art. In a recent interview in Cincinnati, he was asked vaguely about controversy. "The best art taps into deep feelings, sometimes to comfort and sometimes to confront. Art can be very uncomfortable," Landesman said. "That can lead to strong reactions. For some of us, it draws us into the arts over our lifetimes and careers. For others, it creates strong negative feelings."

Landesman wasn't being asked specifically about negative feelings over the Loveland Museum Gallery in Loveland, Colo., a taxpayer-funded art space that recently featured a controversial painting with Jesus Christ receiving oral sex from a man. He's certainly not used to critical questions about just how this blasphemy-by-numbers seems like a tiresome rerun -- Jesus in urine, Jesus in chocolate, Jesus in (homo)sexual ecstasy.

You know -- he wasn't asked, but you just know -- that he never would defend as "the best art" the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad or the Dalai Lama receiving oral sex. He'd be offended if it were a secular figure, such as, oh, President Barack Obama. But this is Christ, whom every taxpayer-funded artist always wants to crucify. This is "the best art."

The artist in this case is a Stanford professor named Enrique Chagoya, and he called his art outrage "The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals." Typically, Chagoya was raised Catholic and claims the work isn't hostile at all, that it's about "faith and belief," that Christ was "about love and about sharing." Blah, blah. For good measure, gallery officials denied the image is sexual, as if men usually put their faces in other men's laps for other reasons.

There's more religious imagery in the multi-panel piece, including what appears to be the head of the Virgin Mary on a scantily clad cocktail waitress and another picture placing the head of Jesus on an obese female body in a one-piece bathing suit, riding a bicycle. The piece also contains written vulgarities (in English and Spanish).

Some might yawn. Here we go again. But what makes this story different is that Kathleen Folden, bless her heart, entered the gallery, broke into the artwork with a crowbar and ripped it to pieces. She didn't really destroy the art, because it was one of several prints, but she did express a rebuttal of sorts to the constant artistic besmirching of Jesus. Someone offended back.

Folden will be prosecuted for "criminal mischief" in the case. Chagoya is now the outraged one: "Should we as artists -- or any freethinking people -- have to be subjected to fear of violent attacks for expressing our sincere concerns?" Seeing as he's obviously free of shame, the Jesus-insulting artist added, "Let's exchange ideas, not insults." This is too rich.

Our media easily blame the offended Christian and not the artist. But make the image a Muhammad cartoon and our media would blame and shame the artist for being needlessly provocative and not the offended Muslim who would take action in response. Someone should ask Chagoya whether he's heard of Molly Norris, who merely proposed (and quickly retracted) "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" and then had to vanish from public view (along with her art) and change her name on the recommendation of the FBI.

The vast majority of the art community's shocking, or "transgressive," work is aimed at celebrating sin and the sexually "liberated." The National Endowment for the Arts recently announced that it would expend $12,500 to translate into English a novel by the Marquis de Sade, the libertine icon whose appetite for sexual violence inspired the word "sadism." The federally honored translator, John Galbraith Simmons, told that this particular novel ("Aline and Valcour") is not pornographic and that "Sade is a figure who belongs with Shakespeare, with the greatest of authors."

The NEA also seems to find supporting art most exciting in the most "sexually liberated" cities. As part of the Obama "stimulus" package, CNS also found, the NEA distributed $1.4 million in special "stimulus" grants to 37 private arts nonprofits in the city of San Francisco, most of which is represented by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. That was more than the total number of NEA stimulus grants handed out to arts organizations in any other state except New York.

The artistic elites like to pretend that they're the sophisticates and that their opponents are the uneducated brutes. But looking at weird and junky cartooning like Chagoya's just makes you think the vandalism here wasn't committed by the woman with the crowbar, but by the guy with the paints.