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Art, Decency, and Money

Natalia J. Garland

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Events of the past week prompted me to connect some thoughts about art, decency, and money. Briefly, I will define art as an arrangement, composition, or performance having some quality of beauty. I will define decency as society's standard for behavior toward others. I will define money as a form of exchange for goods and services, as well as a form of reward.

Let's begin with the student, James Lord, at Dupo High School in Illinois, who was suspended for ending his newscast reading of the school's Daily Bulletin with "Have a safe and happy holiday, and God bless." After intervention from the American Center for Law and Justice (an organization that specializes in cases involving religion and First Amendment rights), the student was permitted to resume his position and to say "God bless" occasionally, but not always.

"God bless" seems like a decent way to treat people. I would rather be blessed than cursed, and I would rather be blessed than to do without. The inclusion of the word, "God," simply makes the blessing more powerful. "God" probably refers to the God of the Christians, but it could also just as easily refer to Allah or some other divinity figure. The student's case is not an isolated incident. There are often stories in the news regarding objections to religious expression.

Who would object to being blessed? Perhaps the objectors are atheists. Perhaps the high school student should have said, "Have a safe and happy holiday, and God bless everyone except the atheists." That would not be very nice. That would be inconsistent with the attitude of blessing. Altering or lessening a blessing would invalidate it. "Have a nice day," for example, is a sort of human blessing, a cordiality that keeps us civil in daily interaction. "God bless" simply invokes the cordiality of a diety upon humans.

I heard about the high school incident a couple of days after President Bush's State of the Union Address in which he requested an additional 18 million dollars for the National Endowment of the Arts. The N.E.A.'s budget is currently $121 million, and the proposed increase would bring it to $139.4 million. Laura Bush announced the proposed increase in a speech to the N.E.A.

Let's go back to 1989. Remember a so-called work of art entitled Piss Christ? It was created by Andres Serrano. It is a photograph of a crucifix submerged in a jar of the artist's urine and cow's blood. Serrano received $15,000 prize money from the N.E.A. for this piece. That's taxpayers' money. This is not the only questionable awarding of money by the N.E.A. Among others is a work entitled The Dinner Party, which depicts the imagined genitalia of historic women such as Susan B. Anthony. For this one the artist received $36,500 from the N.E.A.

Let's go back to 1999. Remember the elephant dung painting entitled The Holy Virgin Mary? It was painted by British artist, Chris Ofili, and it was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The Virgin Mary is depicted with an elephant dung breast, and she is surrounded by genitalia clippings from pornographic magazines. The painting rests on two clumps of elephant dung. One clump has "Virgin" on it, and the other, "Mary." The Brooklyn Museum receives an annual $7 million subsidy from the City of New York. That's taxpayers' money.

These two so-called works of art are probably the most well-known controversial pieces within the past few years. Some people were outraged over the exhibits and over the use of taxpayers' money to support offensive protest art. Piss Christ was exhibited at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, in 1997. The piece was removed after it was attacked twice in two days. It was removed for the safety of the Gallery. The Archbishop of Melbourne tried to get an injunction against the exhibit under an old English law regarding blasphemous libel. The judge, however, felt that the application of this law was unclear for Australian purposes and ruled against it, stating that Australia is a tolerant and multicultural society.

The Holy Virgin Mary was attacked in the Brooklyn Museum, by a 72-year-old man. The painting was placed behind a plexiglass shield in order to protect it. The Mayor of New York City at the time was Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani, a Catholic, felt that the piece was an act of Catholic bashing. He tried to withhold the Museum's subsidy, but the court ruled against him. New York Senator, Alfonse D'Amato, and other members of the Senate were also outraged. Here is an excerpt from the Congressional Record, May 18, 1989 (the authors are Senator Alfonse D'Amato, and Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina), in which that outrage is formally stated.

I say again, Mr. President, he is not an artist. He is a jerk. And he is taunting the American people, just as others are, in terms of Christianity. And I resent it. And I do not hesitate to say so. I am not going to call the name that he applied to this work of art. In naming it, he was taunting the American people. He was seeking to create indignation. That is all right for him to be a jerk but let him be a jerk on his own time and with his own resources. Do not dishonor our Lord. I resent it and I think the vast majority of the American people do. And I also resent the National Endowment for the Arts spending the taxpayers' money to honor this guy.
[End of quote.]

This type of protest art seems to be anti-Christianity and anti-Western Civilization. The defenders of protest art offer various interpretations of the artistic value and meaning of such works. If the above pieces were not funded with taxpayers' money, then I would say it is the prerogative of the artists and the art critics to enjoy whatever value they find in protest art. Let them sponsor it and exhibit it by private means and in private galleries. This type of art holds no beauty for me. And, I would feel the same way if it were a matter of a 'Piss Buddha' or a 'Piss Mohammed.'

Artists have often made political or social statements with their paintings and sculptures. Take a walk through any museum, however, and you will see that the memorable works of art depict their subjects with dignity. Whether it is a peasant laboring in a field, or a view of an industrialized city, or even the barbarity of war, great works of art make a statement without degrading the subject and without offending the viewer. We do not have to agree with any artistic statement, but we should be able to view art without feeling that the artist is treating us badly.

It can be argued that the above mentioned pieces are protest statements against the hypocrisy and abuses of the Church. Well, we already know that the Church has, and has always had, corrupt segments. Submerging a crucifix in urine is not going to help those who have been harmed by priests or by religious institutions. People who physically attack such works are not helping the Church, either. Congress needs to disapprove the $18 million increase in funding to the N.E.A., to stop all funding until the N.E.A. agrees not to honor artists who offend basic human decency, and to require the N.E.A. to refund taxpayers for all past awards given out for offensive art.

Let's go back to the high school student in Illinois. There was an attempt to censor his non-offensive remark, and to restrict him from extending the highest form of goodwill to his peers. What should be regarded as a norm of decency was made to look like religious extremism or favoritism. Meanwhile, the above protest pieces which are extreme, are sanctioned for public viewing in the name of art and tolerance. This is irresponsible and promotes discord among the cultural groups in our society.

For those who are Christian, for those who love good art, for those who know that freedom does not exist without certain standards of conduct, I submit a passage from Nabil A. Hanna, a priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Church.

What should we do? Should we go rioting? Should we gather a mob and go lynch 'artist' Chris Ofili? Beloved in Christ, indeed there is nothing new under the sun. Similar so-called 'art' was made to ridicule Christians as far back as the 2nd century. Pagan 'artists' in the Roman Empire used to depict Christ back then as a crucified donkey. It's true---they'd show a donkey nailed to a cross! What should we do? And should we be outraged only when the ridicule is directed against us? What if it were a Star of David covered with swastikas?, or a mosque defiled by a pig's head (as in fact someone tried to do)? Should we rejoice when it's someone else's religion that it is put down? God forbid!
[End of quote.]

Christian bashing is not new, but it has become popular again. It should be no more acceptable than the bashing of Jews, African Americans, Muslims, or any other group of people. Father Hanna recommends that Christians endure and set an example of love. I would add that our government should not legitimize and encourage bashing with rewards of money. If art is nationally sponsored, it should be art that moves us emotionally, stimulates intelligent reflection, or invites pure aesthetic appreciation. (Written 02/02/04: bibliography available.)

[NOTE: For another essay on a similar topic, see Art and Heresy (written 04/04/07).]

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2004 Natalia J. Garland