Shock and Awful Art

Rocco Landesman is the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and boy, does he know how to spin the official line on offensive art. In a recent interview in Cincinnati, he was asked vaguely about controversy. "The best art taps into deep feelings, sometimes to comfort and sometimes to confront. Art can be very uncomfortable," Landesman said. "What can lead to strong reactions - for some of us, it draws us into the arts over our lifetimes and careers. For others, it creates strong negative feelings."

Landesman wasn't being asked specifically about negative feelings over the Loveland Gallery in Loveland, Colorado, a taxpayer-funded art space which recently featured a controversial painting with Jesus Christ receiving oral sex from a man. He's certainly not used to critical questions about just how this blasphemy-by-numbers seems like a tiresome rerun: Jesus in urine, Jesus in chocolate, Jesus in (homo)sexual ecstasy.

You know - he wasn't asked, but you just know - that he would never defend as "the best art" the depiction of the prophet Mohammed or the Dalai Lama receiving oral sex. He'd be offended if it was a secular figure like, oh, President Obama. But this is the Christ that every taxpayer-funded artist always wants to crucify. This is "best art."

The artist in this case is a Stanford professor named Enrique Chagoya, and he called his art outrage "The Misadventure of the Romantic Cannibals." Typically, Chagoya was raised Catholic and claims the work isn't hostile at all, that it's about "faith and belief," that Christ was "about love, and about sharing." Blah, blah. For good measure, gallery officials denied the image was sexual, as if men usually put their face in another man's lap for other reasons.

There's more religious imagery in the multi-panel piece, including what appears to be the head of the Virgin Mary on a scantily clad cocktail waitress, and another picture placing the head of Jesus on an obese female body, in a one-piece bathing suit, riding a bicycle. The piece also contains written vulgarities (in English and Spanish).

Some might yawn. Here we go again. But what makes this story different is that Kathleen Folden, bless her heart, entered the gallery, broke into the artwork with a crowbar and ripped it to pieces. She didn't really destroy the art, since it was one of several prints, but she did express a rebuttal of sorts to the constant artistic besmirching of Jesus. Someone offended back.

Folden will now be prosecuted for "criminal mischief" in the case. Chagoya was now the outraged one: "Should we as artists, or any free-thinking people, have to be subjected to fear of violent attacks for expressing our sincere concerns?" Since he's obviously free of shame, the Jesus-insulting artist added, "Let's exchange ideas, not insults." This is too rich.

Our media easily blame the offended Christian and not the artist. But make the image a Muhammad cartoon, and our media would blame and shame the artist for being needlessly provocative, and not the offended Muslim who would take action in response. Someone should ask Chagoya if he's heard of Molly Norris, who merely proposed (and quickly retracted) "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day," and then had to vanish from public view (along with her art) and change her name on the recommendation of the FBI.

The vast majority of the art community's shocking or "transgressive" work is aimed at celebrating sin and the sexually "liberated." The NEA recently announced that it would expend $12,500 to translate into English a novel by the Marquis de Sade, the libertine icon whose appetite for sexual violence inspired the word "sadism." The federally honored translator, John Galbraith Simmons told that this particular novel ("Aline and Valcour") is not pornographic, and that "Sade is a figure who belongs with Shakespeare, with the greatest of authors." The NEA also seems to find supporting art most exciting in the most "sexually liberated" cities. As part of the Obama "stimulus" package, CNS also found, the NEA distributed $1.4 million in special "stimulus" grants to 37 private arts nonprofits in the city of San Francisco, most of which is represented by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. That was more than the total number of NEA stimulus grants handed out to arts organizations in any other state except New York.

The artistic elites like to pretend that they're the sophisticates, and their opponents are the uneducated brutes. But looking at weird and junky cartooning like Chagoya's just makes you think the vandalism here wasn't committed by the lady with the crowbar, but by the guy with the paints.