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Jewish World Review May 25, 1999 /10 Sivan, 5759

Cathy Young

Cathy Young
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Solving the 'NEA-problem'

(JWR) ---- (
WILL THE PRIVATE SECTOR finally resolve the controversy over funding for offensive art? Last week, a group of wealthy arts supporters announced the launch of Creative Capital Foundation, which will give grants to individual artists — something that the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) stopped doing in 1994 after a string of controversies swirling around sexually explicit and/or sacrilegious works subsidized by the taxpayer.

In a way, this is the perfect solution to the contentious issue. Want to have art that slaps society in the face? Fine, just don’t ask society to pay it. That’s the position most critics of the NEA took all along (though a few of them, no doubt, would have wanted to stop Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of homoerotic acts from being displayed in museums regardless of who picked up the tab). If a bunch of millionaires want to show off how progressive they are by shelling out big bucks to a woman who takes her clothes off onstage and covers herself with chocolate, bean sprouts and tinsel to protest the oppression of women, that’s their own business.

Randy Tate, president of the Christian Coalition, reacted to news of the foundation’s establishment by saying that while it could fund whatever it wanted, he hoped it would “use great discretion and put forward images that strengthen society and family values.”

At this point, some eye-rolling would not be out of place. One needn’t be an anti-social cynic to see that a view of art as an instrument of society’s moral improvement is simplistic and crude. Art offers us unique visions of the world that don’t always conform to a moral code. It may inspire terror and despair; it may deal with provocative subjects including sexuality.

But the truth is, a lot of art described as “challenging” and “cutting-edge” — the kind of art the Creative Capital Foundation intends to support — is based on notions as crude as Randy Tate’s. Philistines, whether of the conservative or progressive variety, see art only in terms of simple utility and service to an ideology.

Conservative philistines want only art that strengthens society and the family; progressive ones want only art that champions the cause of the oppressed and rebels against bourgeois values. So we get such “art” as the infamous crucifix immersed in urine, or wallpaper decorated with images of genitalia, or a plastic simulated puddle of vomit. Great art can deal with shocking subjects, but much of today’s “provocative” art has nothing going for it but shock value.

It’s not even necessarily a question of obscenity or sacrilege; it’s a question of quackery. A display of a bottle of Coca-Cola in front of a blank TV screen may not be obscene, but it’s hardly art, even if it’s supposed to say something about consumerism.

About a month ago, I happened to be at the Art Institute of Chicago. The modern art rooms had such “installations” as a panel with the inscriptions “Yellow Peril,” “White Anger,” “Red Danger” and “Black Death” (in corresponding colors) and, next to it, a small video screen with people of different races talking unintelligibly over each other. This was obviously intended to be a statement about racial stereotypes and racial diversity. Art? It wasn’t even a good propaganda poster.

The Creative Capital Foundation apparently wants to help artists who “challenge convention.” But so-called experimental art today doesn’t challenge convention; it is convention. If the foundation really wanted to do something unconventional, it would support artists who subscribe to the old-fashioned idea that art has something to do with skill, excellence and — dare one say it? — beauty.

No one, of course, can tell Creative Capital Foundation what to do with its money. But as long as its founders cling to the same stale ideas about art, its contributions will do little to re-energize the cultural scene or help the arts flourish.

JWR contributor Cathy Young is co-founder and vice-president of the Women’s Freedom Network and author of Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality Send your comments to her by clicking here.


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©1999, Cathy Young