SO THERE IS SUCH A THING as impermissibly offensive art. Who'd have thought it? Who would have imagined that a piece of art could be deemed so objectionable that the media would mobilize against it with blistering scrutiny? In our jaded day, after all, cultural sophisticates and the "arts community" insist that the only appalling thing about Andres Serrano's photographs of a crucifix submerged in a vat of his urine, or Robert Mapplethorpe's images of himself being penetrated anally by a bullwhip, is that rubes find them appalling.
Yet some art, apparently, can outrage even the sophisticates. The media storm generated not long ago by one piece of art was furious enough to shake the patron who sponsored it into issuing a public apology.
That intolerable art was Time magazine's June 27 cover, which was based on the Los Angeles Police Department mug shot of O.J. Simpson. To create its "photo-illustration," Time hired artist Matt Mahurin, who changed the original to make Simpson's image appear moodier, grimmer, more menacing -- and blacker.
The attack was swift. From The New York Times to the NAACP, Time was blasted with implications and accusations of racism and of prejudging Simpson's guilt. The assault by the liberal elite was overwhelming, and everyone got the message: This art is unacceptable. If you don't understand, you must be a yahoo.
Time apologized. "To the extent that this caused offense to anyone," wrote managing editor James R. Gaines in the next edition, "I deeply regret it."
Frankly, I didn't see anything wrong with Time's cover. Still, Time is right to "deeply regret" that the artwork unintentionally "caused offense." Those are the words of an artist (or a patron of artists) who cares about his audience and respects its values. Good art can challenge, provoke, startle, and mock. But no serious artist gives offense solely for the purpose of being offensive.
A lot of unserious artists and arts organizations, however, do. Especially those whose real audience isn't the public, but government bureaucrats who give them money.
In Minneapolis recently, the Walker Art Center arranged a production of "Four Scenes in a Harsh Life" by Ron Athey, an HIV-positive actor-playwright. In his performance, Athey takes a scalpel and carves a pattern into another man's back. The blood from the wounds is then blotted with paper towels, then dangled in the air over the heads of the audience.
Major funding for the Walker Center comes from the federal government. This year, it received $104,500 from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Last year's biennial exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York was titled "Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire." Among other delights, it offered a video of a young man spitting blood, a photo of amputated genitalia perched atop two skulls, framed samples of an infant's diaper stains, a giant splash of fake vomit, menstrual blood, and the aforementioned Mapplethorpe and Serrano portraits. Visitors were made to wear badges proclaiming: "I can't imagine ever wanting to be white."
The Whitney is subsidized by the NEA. Grants in recent years total well over $ 300,000.
Photographs by artist Joel-Peter Witkin drew attention when activists tried to display them in the US Capitol. His work includes pictures of a corpse's head sawed in half and repositioned so it seems to be kissing itself; an obese nude woman holding three dead fetuses; and a nude man strapped beneath heavy weights that are suspended above his head by means of a pulley chained to his scrotum. The latter is titled "Testicle Stretch with the Possibility of a Crushed Face."
The NEA has given several grants to Witkin, some worth up to $ 20,000.
A poem published in The Portable Lower East Side in 1991 exalts the attackers who raped and slashed a Central Park jogger nearly to the point of death. An excerpt:
My soul sinks to its knees &
howls under the moon rising full,
"Let's get a female jogger!"
I shout into the twilight
looking at the middle class thighs
pumping past me,
cadres of bitches who deserve to die
for thinking they're better than me.
You ain better than nobody bitch.
The Portable Lower East Side acknowledges "generous support" from the NEA.
Warped, hateful stuff. But don't stay up late waiting for the NEA to apologize for this pollution. Instead of conceding, for example, that the bloody mutilation show in Minneapolis was an abomination, NEA chairwoman Jane Alexander insists it was "a study exploring modern day martyrdom as it relates to AIDS." (If you don't understand, you must be a yahoo.)
No one is forced to buy Time magazine or advertise in its pages. It pays for its art with private funds. Yet Time shows more consideration for public sensibilities and opinion than the NEA, whose every dollar comes out of your pockets and mine.
When the NEA was created in 1965, nobody said anything about "Testicle Stretch" or glorifying rapists. Elitist and insufferable, it has become as grotesque a travesty as the ones it subsidizes. The time has come to shut it down.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)
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