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Jewish World Review Oct. 12, 1999 /2 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

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Art is in eye of beholder -- just don't make me pay for it -- IT WAS WITH A CHUCKLE that I read a commentary by Christopher Knight in a local paper in which he anointed me with the (he thought) dubious assignation as one of the contemporary "three stooges."

The other two were Rush Limbaugh and Paul Harvey. We three were ignominiously lumped because we all used the word "splattered" when describing (or more accurately, when we read newspaper accounts that described) elephant dung festooning the breasts of an African-art stylization of the Madonna. The art includes, according to the free audio guide, cutouts of bare and thong-clad buttocks clipped from porno magazines (does that part seem like traditional African art?).

Oddly, Mr. Knight admitted to not seeing the exhibit either. However, it seems that he is immune from name-calling and is permitted "reasoned" commentary because he saw a photograph of the piece -- the same photograph I imagine we three stooges also saw published in newspaper and magazine accounts.

New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, horrified by this piece as well as others I will soon describe, decided to withdraw the annual $7 million dollars in taxpayer support for the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The results? Lawsuits back and forth between the museum and the city, and vicious attacks on Giuliani (the First Amendment Terminator?) and anyone else with the temerity to question the appropriate limits of "art." Not to mention public revelations about the inherent impurity of the art world as auction houses and art dealers appear to conspire to artificially elevate "artists" and "artwork" with displays in prestigious museums before sale.

For all the protestations about the First Amendment and artistic diversity, methinks that this is all just a money-making, arrogant, elitist sham. The Brooklyn Museum gift shop's poster for the show reads: "Health Warning. The contents of this exhibition may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria and anxiety. If you suffer from high blood pressure, a nervous disorder or palpitations, you should consult your doctor before viewing this exhibition." Tell me about how this is intended to be serious art.

Not even the collection's owner seems to believe that this sensationalism is serious art. Charles Saatchi, the sole owner of this display of contemporary British "art," is quoted in The New York Times Magazine (Sept. 26, 1999): "If I were interested in art as investment, I would just show Picasso and Matisse. But that's not what I do. I buy new art, and 90 percent of the art I buy will probably be worthless in 10 years' time to anyone except me. I don't know how much of the art I like is significant; I hope some of it is."

While most commentary has focused on the anti-Catholic quality of the Madonna portrait (and, as we know, Catholic-bashing is highly prized among liberal groups in movies and television), I was more particularly struck with what else was presented as art.

For one, I wondered, where is PETA when you really need it? According to one major newspaper, there are several pickled animals (cut up after death, we are told): a cow cut into 12 pieces, a lamb, a wall of fish and a bisected pig. I thought these more relevant to the Museum of Natural History or any high school biology class where students dissect animals for grades. Instead, just plain cut-up and embalmed animals are on display for entertainment.

As a passionate advocate for children, I was particularly dismayed with "Myra," a 13-foot-high portrait of Myra Hindley, Britain's most notorious child killer, who photographed one of her victims, a 10-year-old girl, in various pornographic poses, and recorded on tape her pleas to God for rescue, before killing her.

Last but not least are "Self," a frozen head kept in a refrigerated display case that is molded from nine pints of the artists' own blood, and sculptures of nude young girls, many with male genitalia for noses or ears.

Frankly, if you want to call this sophomoric nonsense, perversely obsessed with death and deviant sexuality, "art," be my guest -- although I think you are either easily duped by the naked emperor, are anti-social or rabidly counterculture (the one that preserves and protects you), or you have some unresolved issues that need serious exploring. Nonetheless, you are free to make it and pay hard-earned money to see it. What the rest of us demand is the right NOT to pay for it with our hard-earned money through taxes. The government should not be in the business of supporting "art" when those in the field fail to demand any moral, esthetic, responsible or sensitive limits.

Roger Kimball, in an op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal (Sept. 24, 1999), said it brilliantly: "These raids on the fringes of extremity have helped to transform the art world into a moral cesspool. In testing the limits of free expression, the art world has demonstrated its emancipation from all manner of social and aesthetic norms. ... In fact, freedom without limits quickly degenerates into a parody of freedom."

I don't think taxpayers should be obligated to support exhibitions featuring images.

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©1999, Universal Press Syndicate