Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Bad Art and Bad Audiences

Steven Den Beste notes an exhibit at someplace called LeHigh University. Apparently, some anti-Bush artist has a bunch of angry essays and angrier photographs. In one, the artist has posed a Bush look-a-like fondling a woman's breast. Den Beste writes:

I actually don't mind that they're doing this. I just wonder whether they would have displayed such a "satirical" exhibit if the target-of-skewerance were a person of color or a person of gender?

Would Viera [the exhibit curator] have been as enthusiastic and supportive if the skeweree had been Hillary Clinton or Jesse Jackson? Would that also have been an example of "diverse ideas", and an "intellectual challenge"?

Luckily, history provides an example. Back in 1988, David K. Nelson created a painting called "Mirth and Girth," which portrayed Harold Washington in a bra, panties, hose and garters. He exhibited the piece at the University of Chicago Art Institute. According to The File Room, the piece started a controversy within an hour of its exhibition. The curators contacted Nelson to ask for his permission to take the piece down, but before they were able to resolve the issue, two city Aldermen and three policemen showed up, got in a fracas with students over whether to take the piece down, and ended up "arresting" the painting by force, tearing it in the process. Years later, they were ruled to be in violation of Nelson's first amendment rights, and, according to The File Room, faced potentially huge damages as a result.

So I guess the answer to Den Beste's question is mixed. The University of Chicago staff stood by Nelson, although they did ask him to remove the piece voluntarily, which seems to be lot more than LeHigh University has done. (This may be one reason why the University of Chicago typically gets more respect than LeHigh University.) On the other hand, the Chicago police did tear the painting off the wall, which is a very lot more than the police of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania have done.

(And, of course, if you get angry at an exhibit featuring a photograph of a Palestinian terrorist sailing on a sea of blood, don't expect anyone to remove it, but that goes without saying).

Ultimately, though, I'm not sure Den Beste is right. Photographs of a Martin Luther King look-a-like fondling women wouldn't get posted, although I suspect Hillary Clinton probably would, if an artist put together something good enough. The point of this kind of "art" is to schock, and you can shock just as easily by mocking up a Ralph Nader-Howard Dean orgy as by mocking Bush.

What I am sure of, though, is that the artist at the core of this thing will be able to dine out on this for months, explaining how the "chilling wave of Ashcroft repression" came for him, all because he "spoke his mind."