|GE 'EM, GEORGE!
|Pataki leads the charge against bad art.
There has always been something monstrously cynical about these make-believe art controversies
of the Piss Christ genre, a phenomenon resurrected here in New York last week with the 48-hour
press freakout over the "anti-American" artwork of the Drawing Center, a museum slated to move
to the Ground Zero site.
The cynicism, it should be noted, is usually evident on both sides of the controversy.
Oscar Wilde once described an English gentleman on a foxhunt as being the unspeakable in pursuit
of the uneatable. George Pataki denouncing A Glimpse of What Life Can Be Like in a Free Country
#6 is the shameless in pursuit of the talentless.
It's a symbiotic relationship in which a political hack and a hack artist
conspire to boost each other's profiles. In a less politically charged time, this kind of thing
is a great arrangement for both parties: Andres Serrano dunks crucifix in urine, Newt Gingrich
freaks out about it, both end up with book deals.
But things are a little different in the post-9/11 era, and that's why
the Drawing Center business is not quite the empty careerist transaction it appears at first glance
to be. Things have gotten nervous enough in this country that these mini-pogroms against minor
artists are a real threat to take on lives of their own and morph into a lasting and very dangerous
cultural reflex, a routine method of smashing unconventional ideas.
In the case of the Drawing Center controversy, the positions of both
sides were pretty clear. It so happened that the Center, a small Soho museum founded in 1977 which
has had thousands of exhibits over the years, had a few pictures in its collection that were essentially
bald political provocations. Among those were A Glimpse of What Life Could Be Like in a Free Country
#6, which featured a pen-and-ink recreation of the notorious hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner image,
with the wires emanating from his hands spelling the word "Liberty."
Now, this is certainly stupid art on the level of throwing a picture of
Ronald Reagan on a pile of spent AZT bottles and naming it something like Great Bedside Manner.
Glimpse is about as subtle as a pile of shit under a Christmas tree and contains, as far as
I can tell, absolutely no ideas at all, just a statement in the form of a picture—a statement
that adds absolutely nothing (while being considerably less shocking and impactful) to the real
photographs of the Abu Ghraib prisoners that were leaked, to great effect, to the national media.
If the artist had at least titled the drawing, I Own Three Magic Markers
and a Subscription to the Nation, that would be something, a joke at least. But a sense of humor
is clearly beyond the artist, Amy Wilson, who in all likelihood was exclusively drawing horses
and unicorns right up until a recent collision with an AMC broadcast of Norma Rae or the Counterpunch
The idea that anyone could be moved by this piece of art is hilarious.
Beyond that, the drawing isn't even displayed in the Drawing Center anymore; it was last there in
the fall of 2004.
None of that, however, prevented the Daily News from running
last week's front-page shit-cannon salvo against this and a few other Drawing Center works. Under
the ominous headline "Violated... Again," the paper blasted Wilson's picture as an "anti-American"
abomination that is a "slap in the face of 3,000 innocents" and demanded that Gov. Pataki insist
that the Drawing Center not feature such works when it moves to its new location at Ground Zero.
If Wilson had indeed conceived that drawing as something she intended
to be displayed at Ground Zero, there is a scenario under which one could plausibly argue that this
would indeed be offensive to the 9/11 victims. But she didn't conceive it as a 9/11 memorial. Nor
did the Drawing Center plan on featuring it that way. What the Daily News was arguing was
that the mere fact that the Drawing Center would ever display such a picture raised serious questions
about its political sensibilities, and made their very fitness to be involved in the Ground Zero
cultural center an open question.
Pataki ought to have answered the News by telling its editors
to take a vacation, go get themselves laid somewhere, and come back ready to engage in something
other than third-rate witch-hunting horseshit masquerading as advocacy journalism in a newspaper
that would probably pay a hundred grand for an exclusive interview with Paris Hilton's chihuahua.
As the elected leader of our state and the ostensible defender of the
rights of all New York citizens, Pataki ought to have recognized the News stunt for what
it was: a cheap piece of Roman blood-theater in which some sorry pencil-wielding anonymous artist
was thrown to the lions. If we had a political leader worth the title of governor, he would have stood
up to this evil, lazy, bullying nonsense, and we might even have had a public discussion about what's
actually behind these kinds of campaigns.
But we don't have such a political leader. We have George Pataki, whose
response to the News was not only to cave completely to the paper's demands, but to add: "The
Daily News did a good service by pointing out some of these things."
By the time Pataki made his statement, the Drawing Center story was a
very different story from the one the News originally got its hands on. What started out
as the most minor of stories about a few drawings that were guaranteed to be ignored by absolutely
everybody transformed into something very ugly, no longer about drawings at all. The issue was
now the fact of the governor of New York State being afraid to cross a bunch of barroom flag-wavers
in public. This was not the age-old loyalty oath dynamic, the same phenomenon that last week also
got passed a resolution in the U.S. House to seek a constitutional amendment banning flag desecration.
Like the Drawing Center business, the flag amendment is an obscenely
irrelevant issue to waste government time on; even the bill's proponents could do no better than
point to "111 documented incidents" of flag desecration since 1994. So we're clearly not dealing
with a serious threat to national security here. What is real, and serious, is the political power
play that puts congressmen and senators in the position of having to publicly vote against the flag—and
face the same mechanism that, with the help of George Pataki, has just blasted Amy Wilson into space
The difference between the art controversies of the Piss Christ era and the ones we're dealing with now is obvious. Back then society was arguing about the acceptable
limits of vulgarity and obscenity, and the connection to a larger issue of free speech was mainly
an abstraction—you had to connect a lot of dots to link Larry Flynt's wide-open beavers to
the Jeffersonian ideal.
But now we have public officials and the media in the business of deciding
who is a loyal American and who is not. You have a museum that has been denounced as anti-American,
and effectively rebuked, because it featured an absolutely factual representation of an Iraqi
prisoner of war. This isn't about censorship or even free speech; this is about cultural taboos
and the ritual of public denunciations, which have their own politics and their own logical conclusion.
And when even facts become anti-American, you know we're headed there.
|Volume 18, Issue 26
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