Once again, politics and art clash – as they should. In the National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition: Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, a small portion of an artist’s video shows ants crawling on a crucifix. The curators at the museum thought it and other works in the exhibition were worthy enough to be shown. Many religious groups and politicians believe it to be an insult and a waste of tax payer money. They succeeded in having the video pulled from the exhibition.
Who’s right? Both and neither. Offensive art and its censorship is certainly nothing new. Adam, painted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, was offensive enough to cause a fig leaf to be later painted over his genitalia (Adam, not Michelangelo). The world’s largest sculptures of Buddha in Afghanistan were used as target practice by the Taliban and totally destroyed. Les Fleur du Mal, poems by Charles Baudelaire, was banned for decades by the French government for its offensive sexual references. Music by Mozart, books by Twain, art by Michelangelo: all banned or censored for their offensive content.
Soon to be house majority leader, John Boehner threatened the Smithsonian Institution with “tough budget scrutiny next year” if they don’t remove the offensive work. 20 years ago Jesse Helms, senator from North Carolina, found a photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe so offensive he spearheaded a drive to reduce funding to the National Endowment for the Arts. They subsequently lost nearly half their funding from the federal government.
Ah, now the fun part, deciding who is right. As a lover of art, it seems so easy to support the non-censorship camp, and yell, “Art must be free to say what it wants, offend if necessary.” Or furrow one’s brow in concern: if politicians decide what art is, what will they remove next, the Venus de Milo, because she’s nude?
But who says artists have a right to public funding. Art doesn’t have any more right to be forced upon us than anything else. The vast majority of artists manage to create art without assistance from government funding. One begins to wonder, why are the absolutely, most blatantly offensive works publicly funded. Example, an art exhibition in Brazil involved electrocuting live dogs. Public outcry shut it down.
Art can be tough, offensive, unpleasant – bad. And politicians can be shallow, self-serving, and duplicitous. But that doesn’t mean we should eliminate either. It is called judgment – and it requires us to judge. Art doesn’t get a pass no matter how bad, just because it has the magic moniker. And politicians don’t get to do anything they want, just because they were elected.
No one is suggesting we stop artists from creating what they want to express. Just questioning whether we should pay for it. Equally important, politicians must not be the final arbiter of taste or decency. But they are elected to use our public funds and resources wisely. So they should question when public funds are used to create offensive objects. And we should question their decisions. That is precisely the point of the First Amendment – to protect the dialogue. When we agree, there is no issue. But it is when we don’t, that we must keep the lights and microphones on.
So art lovers, don’t panic, art won’t go away. It has faced far greater challenges than this. And those who are offended, don’t over react, try harder to understand. And if that isn’t possible, look away, try another piece of art. It is unlikely you or children will be damaged by the effort. Time, the greatest art critic of them all, will ultimately decide who is right.
– Jay Magidson,
Director, Ann Korologos Gallery, Basalt, CO