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CULTURE FRONT: Art haters gonna hate
Jackson Hole, Wyoming – I was given a piece of art recently that I really hated. I couldn’t stop thinking and talking about how awful it was. This piece of art enraged me. How could someone have made this thing? It was an assault on my senses. Forget me, it was an assault on the very notion of art!
The artwork in question was not created to inspire fury or controversy. It was no Piss Christ, the famous Andres Serrano photograph of a small plastic crucifix floating in urine. It was a rather benign, unoffending thing that I just happened to detest.
This subjective experience of mine was fairly easy to remedy. I owned the piece of art so I could do with it what I wished without negatively impacting the history of art. However, the experience got me musing on the question of what do people do on a larger, international scale with art we hate?
I identified four main ways humans have tended to deal with art they don’t like: Censor it. Degrade it. Destroy it. Make art about it.
Also called the Frohnmayer Approach or the Way of the Giuliani, some humans of influence try to ban the making or exhibiting of work they hate. John Frohnmayer will go down in history as the National Endowment for the Arts chairman who, in 1990, vetoed funding for performance art he thought was obscene. The performance artists were referred to as “the NEA Four.” Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller made work that graphically explored homosexuality, AIDS, feminism, bodies, and identity, among other themes.
New York mayor Rudy Giuliani took up the censorship torch in 1999 when he became offended by the painting The Holy Virgin Mary (pictured above), by British artist Chris Ofili, which was on exhibit at Brooklyn Museum of Art. The painting depicted a Black Madonna surrounded by images from Blaxploitation movies, close-ups of female genitalia, and elephant dung. Giuliani threatened to revoke the museum’s $7 million annual City Hall grant, but the museum won the ensuing court case.
The Holy Virgin Mary inspired not one but two of the actions we humans like to take against art we hate. One museumgoer smeared white paint over the painting. Another person threw horse manure at the outside of the museum itself in protest of Ofili’s work. Degradation of artwork can involve defacing it, or writing spurious art reviews of it. Let’s think of this as the Smear-it Solution.
If a work of art really pisses someone off, he or she may just decide to destroy it altogether. The Taliban Technique, as I like to call it, was well illustrated in 2001, when the Taliban dynamited two monumental sixth century sculptures in Afghanistan, the Buddhas of Bamiyan. In this case, animal shit and genitals were not necessary to cause the upset. Simply being “idols,” as Taliban leaders claimed, was enough to warrant annihilation of the sculptures, though certainly international politics and posturing were motives too.
Finally we get to the most elevated and civilized way to respond to art that angers: make art about it. My favorite recent example involves one form of vagina art critiquing another form of vagina art. (I really didn’t plan on this theme popping up so much in this column. Apparently genitalia and religious imagery inspire a lot of art-hate.)
Earlier this year in May, a lovely young woman dressed in a gold sequin dress walked into the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and sat down in front of Gustave Courbet’s 1866 painting Origin of the World. If you don’t know the painting, it’s essentially a crotch shot, featuring the naked lower torso of a reclining woman with her legs partly spread. However, if one looks not even closely but at all, one notices that the vagina remains improbably closed, as if the artist himself shied away from making his scandalous painting too scandalous.
The sequined woman sought to rectify this inadequacy and, in a performance art piece entitled Mirror of Origin, she spread her legs, hiked her skirt and bared her unclad nether region. The artist, Deborah de Robertis, said, “I am revealing what we do not see in the painting, the eye of the vagina, the black hole, this concealed eye, this chasm, which, beyond the flesh, refers to infinity, to the origin of the origin.”
To be fair, I don’t think de Robertis was claiming to hate Courbet’s painting. But plenty of feminists in particular have denounced the work.
Anyway, getting back to the humble little gift artwork that evoked so much ire in me, which route did I choose? Reader, I am saddened to admit that I did not employ the Robertis Brilliantis response. I did not cover the art in sequins. Nor did I bare my naked body to counterbalance its cold, indifferent surface. I sunk as low as low can get and employed the Taliban Technique. With one lift of a garbage can lid, I binned the piece. May elephant dung rain down upon me!