Modern Art is Crap

"Should we, in fact, have the good people of Iowa decide for themselves at the local level what they would support, or should they send off an application to a board of art censors in the East who know better what is or is not art suitable for the people in Iowa? Should we have the local control? Should we have a fair disbursement of the money so everybody in this Nation on a per capita basis gets a fair share of the art? Or should we have it sent to the arts centers like Soho in New York City?"
Rep. Dick Armey (R-TX) - from a speech against the National Endowment for the Arts, delivered on the floor of the House of Representatives, 7/10/97

"Just last week, a Daily News/NY1 poll reported that 60 percent of New Yorkers disagreed with the mayor’s decision to withhold funding to the Brooklyn museum. Of 508 New Yorkers polled, 30 percent supported the mayor’s decision, while 10 percent said that they were undecided."
No Byline -, 10/4/99

"Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault."
Oscar Wilde

People do want to have some say about what passes for art these days, even if that say only consists of "go ahead, show the damn thing already and see if anybody likes it".

But haven't they always?

Sure, people ran screaming into the streets after the Armory Show in 1913, having seen, among other works, Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase". As if that wasn't enough, he sent a urinal to the New York Independent Show four years later, under the pseudonym R. Mutt. And they displayed it!

Applause all around, I say.

Personally, I'm not partial to Leroy Neiman (not that he's applying for NEA funds, but for the sake of argument, stick with me, folks), I think his work is ugly. But ugly ain't the deciding factor here, it's relevance. No offense to any Neiman-oids, his work is just innocuous.

If my local Modern Art museum had a Neiman Show, I'd stay away -- far away. If they had a Neiman show with paintings of Franco, Tito, Stalin, Hitler, and Papa Doc Duvalier with big haloes around their heads, and titles like, "You go, Ceaucescu, old buddy!", or "David Duke - Greatest thing since Sliced Bread!", I'd go, and see it, and argue not about its (ahem) artistic merits, but about its RELEVANCE.

Now this African guy makes a picture of a black Virgin Mary, slaps some butts he cut out of porno mags on it, and smears a bit of elephant turd on it. Gentle readers, how hard is it to see the relevance of this piece?

1-She's black.
Every ethnic group reshapes icons into its image. You know the familiar Chinese statues of Buddha, with the typically Chinese features? FYI, the Buddha was Indian. So why shouldn't Chris Ofili, an African artist, show Mary as African, if that's how she looks to him? Personally, I go for Murillo's "Virgin and Child", but that's just me--she looks more Jewish than other Madonnas.

2-The butts.
So he added images from porno magazines. Do we really want to get started on this? How shockingly new is the concept of eroticism in religion? Try reading the Song of Solomon sometime.
Here's a sample: "As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste."

3-The elephant dung.
Is it so inconceivable that an African person may feel shat upon by ALL of Western civilization, let alone the Roman Catholic Church? Sure, the missionaries, C.A.R.E, blah blah blah, but given the Peace Corps, Oxfam, and Sally Struthers, how much more helpful can a bunch of priests, nuns, and lay-folk be? On the gross-out side, elephants have a surprisingly inefficient digestive system, so output, other than being drier and smellier, is not that different from input, hence, not as bad as it seems. (This makes them a "super- keystone" species -- for more info, see

By the way, Chris Ofili didn't just come out of nowhere to get this piece in the "Sensations" show at the Brooklyn. Even the Tate Gallery in London itself has almost a dozen pieces of his.

Will I make a cross-country pilgrimage to Brooklyn to see it? No. Do I think there's room for it in the subjective universe of the arts? Yeah, why not?

More importantly, if the publicly-funded museums of the world don't bring us work that gets us talking (shouting?) and reminds us we are thinking, reasoning, and judgmental beings, and that nothing new and exciting ever came from perfect agreement, then what the Hell good are they?

The point here is that people want to tell you what you should and shouldn't look at, when the decision, naturally, should be yours alone. Just try not to make that decision in a vacuum.

P.S. There's a (excuse the pun) shitload of other reasons why "Uncle Rudy" Giuliani is making such a stink about the exhibit, and there's a great piece about it from NPR's "All Things Considered" (Follow the "NY Museum Flap" link to the RealAudio file)