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Monday, April 25, 2011



An Opinion

I wrote this short essay back in 2001 following a controversy in a well-read art magazine. This was in answer to the controversy that resulted from one of the magazine's covers, disliked by many readers, one of whom described it as "a swirl of green vomit." An established artist wrote that it was "outright garbage." Another, that it was "anything but art." Many readers questioned whether it was "good" art or "bad" art. On balance, opinion was about evenly divided between whether it was or wasn't art at all.

On the heels of this controversy came the Brooklyn Museum exhibition of British art, which included items that caught the attention of national news media when New York Mayor Rudy Giuilliani threatened to cut off the museum's funding. The storm focused on two pieces: A "painting" of the Virgin Mary smeared with elephant dung, and a collage of "private parts." Other "works of art" included dissected animals in formaldehyde and a sympathetic portrait of a murderer of children.

Several months later, the showing of a photograph at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts raised a stink. It was a graphic image of children urinating.

A year earlier, a prestigious New York auction house offered "major collectibles" that included freestanding toilets. Adulatory press reviews resulted in a sell-out.

The showing of Apocalypse at the Royal Academy of Arts in London was described by The Times of London as art that "belongs in a horror show." The exhibits include children's toys made out of excrement and the image of a dead Pope. The offerings are no less disturbing.

On February 16,2001 we had another "shock art" show at the Brooklyn Museum of fine art. People flocked to view this latest hit.

As a working artist, I have followed art trends for thirty years. I long since concluded that sensationalism has triumphed over decency.

In New York's Museum of Modern Art, I viewed the infamous Piss Christ, a crucifix half-submerged in a bowl of urine. At the other end of vacuity, there was a blank canvas. (A portrait, perhaps, of the artist's mind.)

Before that, we were treated to Mapplethorpe's photographs of penises, scrotums, and the acts of sodomy. One wonders, from what lunatic asylum did their buyers escape?

When I approached the director of the gallery displaying Mapplethorpe and showed him my portfolio, his exact words were: "Hey, man! What we want in New York is sex. Your stuff is old-fashioned and out-of-date." I cheerfully concede the point. Where is the line between "freedom of expression" and decency? Do museum directors erase it when they display as art what most of us consider obscene? Women as well as men lace conversation with such words as f_ck and sh_t. Do art museums reflect, or contribute to, indecency?

The National Endowment for the Arts, promoter of obscenity more than opera, clamors for tax dollars. Perhaps a public, which sanctions Piss Christ and a painting of the Virgin Mary smeared with dung, should pay up and shut up.

Asked what I think about such exhibitions, my reply is this:Is it art? The answer depends on your response to it, provided you can ignore the "critics." If you think its garbage, then it's garbage. Never mind the arbitrators of "artistic taste."

Book reviewers extol books (they are usually authors themselves, who expect reciprocal adulation), but the buying public makes a best seller. A critic may like or not like a play. The audience makes it a flop or a hit.

Graphic art is different. The museum or gallery director is the sole arbitrator. Whether "art" or not, it has the imprimatur of the "expert," and viewers must like it, or pretend to, lest they look foolish.

With marble floors and marble walls, with light emanating from above, museums are taken for temples. Whatever hangs on their walls or stands on their pedestals must therefore be art.

Or is it?

Jack Jeffers