The Radical Art of Deliberate Offense
ACRU Senior Fellow Robert Knight wrote this column appearing December 1, 2010 on The Washington Times website.
In “Rules for Radicals,” Saul Alinsky advises leftist organizers to antagonize opponents. “The real action is in the enemy’s reaction,” he writes in his 1971 classic strategy manual. “The enemy properly goaded and guided in his reaction will be your major strength.”
The latest Alinsky-like assault involves a perennial tactic: putting sacrilegious or indecent imagery on display at taxpayer expense and then screaming “censorship” when people predictably object.
The National Portrait Gallery became the latest battleground this week when it featured a four-minute excerpt from “A Fire in My Belly,” a 1987 work by the late David Wojnarowicz, famous for his hate-filled diatribes against Christianity and the Catholic Church in particular. After the Catholic League and other groups complained, the museum withdrew the display.
Images included a crucified Christ with ants crawling over Him, and “homoerotic” and anatomically graphic images of naked men. You know, the stuff that sends certain folks at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) into ecstatic reveries.
The next Alinsky-style tactic was to assail the Catholic League for reacting to the well-placed kick in the gut.
Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik, who rhapsodizes about art as long as it’s devilishly perverse, came out with derringers blazing on the front page of the Style section in a screed headlined “Museums shouldn’t bow to censorship of any kind.”
He used every trick in the book, so let’s deconstruct:
1. Portray the offensive work as harmless or even “traditional”:
“The irony is that Wojnarowicz’s reading of his piece puts it smack in the middle of the great tradition of using images of Christ to speak about the suffering of all mankind.”
Sure it does. Wojnarowicz once described the late Cardinal John O’Connor as “this fat cannibal from that house of walking swastikas” and “this creep in black skirts.”
Mr. Gopnik: “There is a long, respectable history of showing hideously grisly images of Jesus.”
Yes, but not in the cause of elevating sin to a subsidized “right.”
2. Raise the idea that standards would destroy great art:
“[C]ommon standards of decency … don’t exist, and shouldn’t in a pluralistic society.”
Really? That means smut merchants would set the tone for everyone, in every locale.
3. Propose an absurdly extreme outcome:
“If every piece of art that offended some person or some group was removed from a museum, our museums might start looking empty – or would contain nothing more than pabulum. Goya’s great nudes? Gone.”
Interestingly, The Post uses a photo of Goya’s “La maja desnuda,” a reclining female nude, but doesn’t show the “homoerotic” images at issue. Wonder if Mr. Gopnik is offended by that?
4. Warn that any sensitivity to public sentiment will harm your reputation:
“Twenty-one years ago, the Corcoran Gallery of Art took a huge hit to its prestige and credibility – a hit it has yet to fully recover from – when it canceled a show of imagery by the gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe under similar puritanical pressures.”
Mr. Gopnik declined to mention that Mapplethorpe’s works were obscene, including a self-portrait with a bullwhip up his, well, you get the idea. When Congress was hotly debating NEA funding in 1989, the New York Times ran photos of Mapplethorpe’s pictures of flowers. The Times editors knew what they were doing.
When TV talk-show host Phil Donahue energetically defended the collection of obscene photos as “freedom of speech,” he got the studio audience on his side. Then a guest boldly distributed the actual photos. The audience went pale and left Mr. Donahue looking like a man who had just come onstage and opened his raincoat.
5. Assert moral relativism – that all standards are of equal, subjective value:
“Norman Rockwell would get the boot, too, if I believed in pulling everything that I’m offended by: I can’t stand the view of America that he presents, which I feel insults a huge number of us non-mainstream folks.”
Let’s see – bizarre sexual images and sacrilege versus Norman Rockwell’s charming depictions of everyday American life? You decide.
6. The old favorite – comparing decency defenders to the Taliban:
“Aren’t those kinds of declarations just what extremist imams get up to, in countries with less freedom?”
Muslim extremists cut off people’s heads and stir murderous riots. American decency defenders debate public standards with the worst case for the artist being a loss of subsidies or having to find another forum.
7. Use a recent envelope-pushing performance as a moral yardstick:
The film shows Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts “(through a bra, one might note, in an image that’s less shocking than many moves by Lady Gaga).”
This makes Lady Gaga’s bump and grind the new standard of what’s acceptable.
8. Declare that artists have more rights than others, including the right to shock people in publicly supported galleries:
“Artists have the right to express themselves. … if anyone is offended by any work in any museum, they have the easiest redress: They can vote with their feet, and avoid the art they don’t like.”
The irony is that the left constantly censors anyone who disagrees with them on their version of what’s sacred. They imbue with holiness the causes of sexual immorality, abortion, blasphemy, racial preferences, illegal immigration, extreme environmentalism and anything else that advances social disintegration. But they would howl if a museum featured an exhibit exposing the lies of the “global warming” crowd or ran a film showing how people can overcome sexual temptation.
They get away with it because the mainstream media are largely blind to moral distinctions.
Psalm 12:8 nails it: “The wicked prowl on every side, when vileness is exalted among the sons of men.”
As an alternative, art lovers might want to consider advice from the apostle Paul:
“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” (Philippians 4:8)
To most Americans who aren’t acolytes of Saul Alinsky, Norman Rockwell just might fit that bill better than David Wojnarowicz.