The politics of art

Posted: Mar 18, 2002 12:00 AM
All art, according to Oscar Wilde, is useless. He was only half mocking, making a point that art exists for its own sake. It wasn't supposed to have something to say. Samuel Goldwyn felt that way about movies. "If you've got a message," he famously told his script writers, "go to Western Union." Telegrams were the last word in swift words before the fax machine and e-mail. But art, like politics, is often in your face. That's why stories about the culture wars and its conflicts are important. Contending forces are polarized, frequently sensationalized and often vulgarized, but they're about something. Remember the Madonna painted with elephant dung hung in the Brooklyn Museum? Or Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix suspended in the artist's urine? Both provoked outrage. The artists who did it wanted to offend, seeking attention, and their intention was clearly to make fun of somebody's religion. Art that doesn't raise an argument often doesn't find a wide audience. That's too bad, because the public can miss out. The war against terrorism that unifies Americans against a treacherous enemy also inspires fine art. "True Colors: Meditations on the American Spirit" is currently showing in Washington with plans to travel to New York and Atlanta as well as to cities abroad. It's a wonderful mix of memory and composition by artists both famous and unknown, who commemorate Sept. 11. A painting by Jamie Wyeth shows three firefighters raising the flag over the rubble at Ground Zero and is reminiscent of the Marines who raised the flag on Iwo Jima. Gorgeous paintings of Goya's women are now hanging in a special exhibition of his works at the National Gallery of Art. Two of the most famous ones are of the same woman. In one she is clothed and in the other she's naked, both in the same pose. Goya was put before the Inquisition in 1814 because the Spanish church forbade renderings of the naked human form. The only controversy the nude provokes today is whether to show a print of it in a family newspaper. (The Washington Post did; the Washington Times didn't.) When "The Crucible," a play by Arthur Miller about the 17th century Salem witch trials, opened in 1953, it enraged conservatives because the playwright compared the false condemnation of witches to "false accusations" of communists by the House Committee on un-American Activities. Today "The Crucible" is back on Broadway and the Cold War is over. The play can imply a completely different analogy, one comparing the false charges against Salem witches with false charges children (sometimes after they have grown to be adults) have brought against their so-called child abusers. The times often outrun contemporary themes. The Jewish Museum in New York opened with a controversial art exhibition the other day called "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art," with pieces by artists who were born after the Third Reich, who want to shock viewers of an older generation as well as their own into reflecting on the meaning of the Holocaust for today. One of the most controversial pieces is a picture of a concentration camp made up of a box of Legos, the children's play blocks. It questions the way evil seeps into ordinary life, even the lives of children, and it reminds us of those children who never grew up to play with toys. The art considers the changing nature of historical interpretations, especially when direct experience no longer informs horror. So enraged are certain Holocaust survivors that they are mounting a public protest. Particularly horrifying images have been placed in a separate room with warning labels so that viewers can avoid them if they wish. Not far away, "The Producers," the comic musical depicting the fuhrer as a raging queen surrounded by a line of chorus girls in black boots and sparkling uniforms, high-kicking to the rhythms of a campy tune called "Springtime for Hitler," is playing to capacity houses and is the hottest ticket on Broadway. Oscar Wilde was wrong. Art is not useless. It can inspire, enrage, mock and move the emotions in many directions. Controversy may depend on the intention of the artist, but like beauty, art lies in the eye of the beholder.