Two of my readers have given me a lot to think about. They wrote comments on my February 12th blog, “The Fashion in Outrage,” about controversies over art. It contrasted Americans’ huge response to recent domestic literary scandals with our inertia with respect to political ones.
The fact that “tout le monde” is more easily riled about artistic scandals than about politics, though, is the point that you should follow up. The Muslim world is going hogwild (oops) about the caricatures, while the real problems are hidden away or anyway go on and on and on (NYT seems to be pushing this hard).
Here in Israel, we have elections in 5 weeks and you wouldn’t know it!
From the U.S.:
I think that the literary scandals became scandals of such proportion because of the political lies and deceit. I.e. = we feel hopeless and powerless over our leaders and politics in general so we “vent” our frustrations by crushing the “small” liars. Otherwise the whole Frey outrageous scandal makes no sense to me at all.
I don’t see it quite the same way as either correspondent, but both their comments opened my mind. The day after they wrote, I walked in on a conversation about the Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed that have incited such protest. One thoughtful, progressive caring person was painstakingly recreating the sequence of events in Denmark—the exact nature and content of the offending cartoons, the degree to which the cartoonist and publisher should be seen as noble civil libertarians or ignoble bigots—trying to calibrate the precise disproportion of global Muslim response. His conversation partners weighed in with their views on the harm humor can do, with their spins on the social value of heightened sensitivity. One person pointed out that Iran’s largest newspaper had launched a cartoon contest on the theme of the Holocaust, proposed as a way to test the durability of European commitment to free expression.
The whole conversation seemed to take place in an imagined space of Europe and the Mideast created by the media’s tone of quasi-anthropological bafflement: what are they doing and why are they doing it?
It put me in mind of 1989 right here in my own backyard, making me see that in focusing on what I’d perceived as an overblown response to relatively trivial scandals, I’d missed the point. I’d forgotten that people express outrage over art precisely because it is symbolic speech. Stripped of extraneous detail and instrumental function, artistic expression is a clear channel for debate over the big questions of meaning and relationship that animate us at the deepest levels. Art is emblematic. When people get caught up in its controversies, it isn’t that they are evading the big questions, it is that they are engaging their essence:
What is sacred?
What matters most?
Who decides for me?
Case in point: in 1989, an artist named Andres Serrano had benefited from a National Endowment for the Arts regional fellowship to support a body of work focusing on his artistic obsessions at the time: crucifixes and other artifacts that evoked his deeply Catholic upbringing, immersed in vials of bodily fluids (e.g., milk, urine and blood) and photographed in vivid, saturated color. Reverend Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association seized on one work in particular, “Piss Christ.” Other far-right groups picked up on other edgy artists’ work, particularly those who treated gay experience or attacked other sexual taboos. Together, they drummed up a moral panic of killer-bees-are-coming proportions, raising many millions of dollars to save America from the infidels.
(For more detail, click on this link to the Wikipedia entry, which has links to original Senate testimony.)
This had immediate repercussions in the arts, leading to a long moratorium on individual artist fellowships, the closing of controversial exhibits, and the instigation of various anti-obscenity provisions and loyalty oaths for those who receive public arts funding. It also led to a tremendous amount of self-censorship by artists, and to an evergreen strategy to energize tired politicians’ news coverage (as in 1999, when New York’s Mayor Giuiliani tried to pull a Donald Wildmon over Chris Ofili’s painting “The Holy Virgin Mary,” in which small bits of elephant dung were used by the artist to connect his Nigerian heritage with the painting’s subject; the controversy died down when Ofili was widely acknowledged as an observant Catholic with reverent intentions).
But it also went far beyond the art world, profoundly affecting the spirit of the times. When leaders of the organized far right realized how much hay they could make without directly engaging the issues of the day—merely by treating symbolic expressions as if they actually threatened citizens’ well-being—the Republican Congressional coup of 1994 was underway, eventually leading to the nearly bankrupt, thoroughly terrorized garrison state of today’s Bush administration.
(Sometimes, without reference to the art world, life even throws up a piece of “found art,” like Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent performance piece, “The Hunting Accident, or, Buckshot in the Face,” which is now being mined for every molecule of symbolic content: Cheney’s lack of foresight, his indifference to the well-being of others, his wish to evade responsibility for his actions, etc., etc.)
So when we see agitators inciting people to interpret the symbolic speech of cartoon images as a form of personal, religious attack, when we see Muslim crowds in angry protest, it isn’t really so mysterious, so alien or irrelevant to our own culture, is it? And when we see people up in arms over literary hoaxes, it isn’t really so trivial, is it? Just art imitating politics, giving us a symbolic depiction of our betrayal small enough to chew on…and spit out.
Where there are elections, enough people will go to the polls to secure a result, carrying in their heads the symbolic debates the newspapers have carried for them in preceding weeks. To our peril or our delight, they will have engaged with the issues in the realm where art imitates politics, and they will have made up their minds.
Bob Dylan said it so well in 1965:
Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Made everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much
Is really sacred.
While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have
To stand naked….
And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.