A radical Christian reinterpretation of the Sistine Chapel
Remember the "culture wars" from way back when? Back in the late '80s and early '90s, when the Moral Majority and the American Family Association drew blood against their common foe of secular humanism, battling to preserve the commonwealth from the decadent photographs of Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe and the subversive performance art of the NEA 4?That whole "crusade for decency" culminated in the Republicans taking control of the House in the midterm elections of 1994. Here we stand, on the eve of the mid-term elections in 2006, and many are predicting a turn of this conservative tide, some even predicting a Democratic majority in the Senate when the dust settles after election day. And yet I still feel the distant resonance of those long-ago culture wars.
Just a few weeks ago, editors at the Raleigh News & Observer
, one of the largest papers in North Carolina, saw fit to publish a rather bold disclaimer on its front page:
ADVISORY TO READERS
Today's Life, etc. section includes a photo of a famous fresco by Michelangelo that includes nudity.
The story in question, a Cox News Service piece, dealt with a recent study on the varieties of Christian theology practiced in the US, and was illustrated (quite unexceptionally) with a color reproduction of the Creation of Adam
panel from the Sistine Chapel's ceiling. (Adam's the one with the highly dangerous, teeny-weeny wiener.)
So what in God's name drove an editor at a large metropolitan newspaper to decide that his readership might find Michelangelo's acknowledged masterpiece to be so objectionable that it needed an advisory?
Marx once remarked (citing Hegel), that all great world historical events appear, so to speak, twice—the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. In fact the seeds for this farcical advisory were planted in the hotly contested cultural ground of the first culture wars. You might consider this one the "culture hiccups."
America was pretty much a cultural backwater for much of its history, until the world historical event of World War II abruptly shifted the center of power from Europe to the New World, squarely placing it on America's shoulders.
We were still a largely agricultural country when that mantle was transferred, even as American artists broke through to the big time with Abstract Expressionism—Pollock, de Kooning, and the others (many, like de Kooning, immigrants themselves) became the poster boys for "Freedom on the March" during the height of the McCarthy era.
At that point, the establishment had developed a vested interest in promoting American art and artists on the international stage. It provided credibility, cultural currency, and a sense of sophistication that was necessary as we emerged as a global superpower. Lyndon Johnson signed the law authorizing the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), in 1965, one small part of his progressive social agenda, and one that was seen to have great intrinsic merit at the time.
Twenty-five years later, however, the ascendant religious right, ever distrustful of presumably elitist things like art and culture, used the NEA as fodder for its blistering, base-building attack upon all things secular and humanist. Art was at the top of that list. It was high profile, and produced a big bang for the buck. Demagogues like Donald Wildmon of the AFA could feed the paranoia of the simple Christian folk he presumed to guide, using new media like mass fax and e-mail campaigns to barrage unwitting lawmakers with complaints about hot-button issues like anti-Christian art, homosexuality, and why the heck aren't kids allowed to pray in school.
Winning their place in the 1994 "Contract for America" campaign of Newt Gingrich, the direct attacks on artworks have died down considerably. The NEA is no longer permitted to issue grants directly to individual artists, and its budget has been slashed to a pittance. But even now that the glare of the television lights has faded away, we're left with a country that has effectively devalued art, and that distrusts artists on a fundamental level. As Modern Art Notes
blogger Tyler Green put it, "We're prudish morons."
So we get reader advisories about Michelangelo frescoes (what, is the Vatican a bad influence now, too?), and even worse—as can be seen in another recent story of Bible Belt philistinism.
Sydney McGee is an award-winning art teacher who had worked in the Frisco, Texas, school district for 28 years. Last spring, she led a group of her fifth-grade students on a field trip to the Dallas Museum of Art. The field trip had been approved by her principal, and parents had signed permission slips for all the students who took part.
McGee was recently informed by the school district that her contract was not being renewed. According to McGee's lawyer, the principal at her elementary school admonished her about the trip, after a parent complained that a student had seen nude art in the museum. The particular artwork in question was not identified, but the collection of the Dallas Museum does include a sculpture of a nude youth, part of what had been an ancient Greek funerary monument, that dates back to 330 BC. (Those old Greeks were pagans too, you know!)
There seems to be no adequate response to this jaw-dropping story. At this point, I despair to see what will become of us. When was the last time you saw Hillary Clinton making a forceful, informed, and passionate argument on behalf of art, poetry, or music? At best, we just get some warmed-over mush about how art in the schools will help our kids be more competitive in the global marketplace.
How can we hope to reclaim half the ground lost in the wake of the opportunistic political attacks on art and culture that were launched a decade and a half ago? I'll be happy to hear from any readers with ideas for how to start. (Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
.) Way more than just which party controls Congress is at stake.
If you can only see one show this month...go to Van Brunt Gallery in Beacon, which will feature a gently curated group of really talented painters. Joe Concra, Thomas Huber, and Thomas Sarrantonio will have the lion's share of the space, each with his own highly individual and tactile approach to the medium. In addition, Colin Barclay will be showing a suite of his new paintings, pushing the limit of a limited palette (think landscapes seen by night) in his signature ethereal style. The opening takes place on November 4.
"Joe Concra, Thomas Huber, and Thomas Sarrantonio: New Paintings" and "Colin Barclay: Night Paintings" will be on view November 4 through 27 at Van Brunt Gallery, 460 Main St., Beacon. An opening reception will be held on November 4 from 6 to 9pm. (845) 838-2995; www.vanbruntgallery.com