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Jewish World Review April 30, 2002 / 18 Iyar, 5762

Robert L. Haught

Robert L. Haught
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Consumer Reports

Donkeys and elephants: Is it
really art or is it politics? -- WASHINGTON Much has been written about the "art of politics," but a current controversy swirling in the nation's capital has to do with the "politics of art."

No, this time it isn't Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., railing against obscene photographs, nor does it concern Attorney General John Ashcroft's decision to drape the bare bosom of a statue, "Spirit of Justice."

It's all about donkeys and elephants. And, oh yes, sunflowers.

Visitors to Washington, D.C., might not be aware of it, but the federal city has a Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Some time ago members of this commission decided to lead an effort to boost tourism. They thought long and hard, trying to come up with an appropriate symbol for the city.

One suggestion was the popular pandas at the National Zoo. Another was squirrels, but that was wisely rejected. (When you think of squirrels, you think of nuts, and then you think of Congress.)

The commission finally settled on donkeys and elephants. Thus was born the "Party Animals" project, a plan to place 200 plastic sculptures all around the city. It just so happens that the animals chosen are also the symbols of the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively.

Now, mind you, these are not ordinary jackasses and pachyderms. Each one, the commission insists, is a work of art. Or as a news release put it, "imaginative designs that will stir up the whimsical side of the nation's capital." As if there's not already enough whimsy in the lawmaking process.

The Washington Post reports the commission looked at 1,200 design applications in choosing artists to decorate the animals. In addition to local talent, the artists came from as far away as Georgia, New York, Pennsylvania -- and Tokyo.

Each artist was awarded a grant of $1,000, plus $200 for supplies, to create such eye-catchers as "The Divine Miss Donkee," decked out in a hot pink and gold flowered dress and wearing blue- tinted sunglasses. It is "what Bette Midler would look like if she was a donkey," Jill Krasner, the designer, told the Post.

Another inspired artist covered an elephant with postcards and called it "Travel Trunk." A companion with newspapers for skin became "Media Circus."

Sounds like fun, right? Well, not everyone was amused. The D.C. Statehood Green Party filed a lawsuit to try to force the commission to include 100 sunflowers, the Greens' symbol, as part of the plan.

The commission's executive director, Tony Gittens, reacted like a good politician.

"The 'Party Animals' project is an arts project," he said. "It's not a political project." (The Post did not say whether he made that statement with a straight face.)

Michael Piacsek, a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit, pointed out that in the last presidential election the Green Party, with Ralph Nader heading its ticket, won 6 percent of the D.C. vote. The Republican ticket got 9 percent.

This month, U.S. District Judge Henry M. Kennedy sided with the commission, ruling that the display of 200 donkeys and elephants did not constitute political speech. The judge declared the project was about art, not politics.

So beginning this week, the commission is placing 10 animals a day on city streets. All 200 are scheduled to be on view by May 10. That is, if they haven't all been stolen.

And the only sunflowers to be seen will be those growing up through cracks in the sidewalks.

Ah, the wondrous ways of Washington!

JWR contributor Robert L. Haught is a columnist for The Oklohoman. Comment by clicking here.


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12/21/01: Gifts for many public officials came a bit early this year
11/29/01: Animal rights group would like to tan Osama's hide
11/20/01: Are Americans too spaced out?
10/12/01: There's something fishy going on in the U.S. Congress
10/05/01: Lincoln had some memorable things to say about war
09/21/01: Washington's guidelines on how to tickle a terrorist
08/31/01: Two Garys, going the same road
08/24/01: Dog days are laughing matter, stories set tails wagging

© 2001, Robert L. Haught