Abject Art

At the turn of the century, the famous artist Marcel Duchamp shocked the world by displaying a urinal and calling it "art." Today, his successors are displaying what goes into the urinal . . . and calling it "art." In fact, with a new administration in Washington, artists are taking the opportunity to kick up their heels. As a case in point, the Whitney art museum in New York City is displaying an exhibit called "Abject Art." The purpose of the show is to highlight artwork that uses what the catalog refers to as "abject materials such as dirt, hair, excrement, dead animals, menstrual blood, and rotting food." Anyone who can call these things "art" with a straight face has obviously crossed some sort of line. And the display gives ample evidence that the Whitney has crossed the line several times: It includes such things as a three-foot mound of synthetic excrement, a dismembered sculpture of two women engaging in sexual acts, a homoerotic film, and a film depicting Jesus Christ as a naked woman. What's the point of all this? The answer is that radical artists are flouting social standards more than ever in response to public criticism. Under the Reagan and Bush administrations, conservatives in Congress demanded better screening of art projects that receive government funding through the National Endowment for the Arts. Artists screamed censorship. And now-with the change in administrations-they're fighting back. The catalog for "Abject Art" says the show is aimed directly at social-conservative critics. Do they think art has become vulgar? We'll show them something vulgar. Do they think art is obscene? We'll show them something obscene. We'll thumb our noses at the critics-and what's more, we'll use government money to do it. This belligerent attitude explains the three-foot mound of simulated excrement. The goal of the show, according to the catalog, is "to confront taboo issues of gender and sexuality"-to highlight subject matter "deemed inappropriate by a conservative dominant culture." And just to make sure no one misses the point, the show specifically includes the very works that have sparked so much controversy: Andres Serrano's photo of a crucifix in a jar of urine, a homoerotic painting by Robert Mapplethorpe, and a film by porn star Annie Sprinkle called Sluts and Goddesses, subtitled How to Be a Sex Goddess in 101 Easy Steps. The Whitney display is an example of what Christian artist Leland Ryken calls "the anti-art movement." Radical artists have given up any notion that art should be about ideals of beauty and form, that it should uplift and ennoble us. Instead, art has degenerated into an expression of adolescent rebellion, on a par with eight-year-olds who giggle at bathroom jokes. Congress is once again considering bills to reauthorize the NEA, and as Christians and citizens we need to make our views heard. At the same time, we must make it clear that this is no narrow-minded attack on art. The truth is that Christians are trying to defend art against an anti-art movement: against radical artists who are reducing art to a tool in their rebellion against society.


Chuck Colson



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