Just when we thought that the pornographic “artists” had gone as far as they could go, new twists come along. In 1995 the Vancouver Art Gallery displayed two enormous identical prints depicting Pope John Paul’s bust, in a jar of urine supplied by the so-called artist, Andrew Serrano. These two prints framed a display of Goya’s war etchings, and the accompanying explanations said that Goya’s works depicting the horrors of war had been augmented by relevant pieces from the gallery’s collection.
After he had seen this display, Thomas Langan, president of the Catholic Civil Rights League, wrote to Brook Joyner, director of the gallery, to ask why such an affront to Catholic sensibilities took place in a major cultural institution. His letter produced a response saying that Serrano’s work was intended to encourage debate, not hatred; that it grew out of an earlier tradition of religious iconography; that it embodied the uncomfortable balance of beauty and repulsion which characterizes much Christian imagery.
The two pictures, the director pointed out, had been placed in direct relation to the final series of Goya’s images depicting in allegory the figure of truth about to be extinguished by a group of clergy men. With good reason, Langan wrote that “if what you mean to say is that the most vocal and prominent defender in our time of the very idea of truth and of human dignity remains in fact a continuation of the dark forces of oppression Goya saw in the Spanish hierarchy,” then he was inciting hatred and contempt against the Holy Father and all Catholics.
The display evoked protests from devout Christians and others, labelled “prudes” by Adrienne Clarkson on her CBC program. But a Bank of Montreal vice-president commented that a gallery ought to be sensitive to the views of its patrons. This was reported by Ted Byfield in a Western Report column. Western Report took its objections farther: it showed a picture of the exhibition’s corporate sponsors -including representatives of Macmillan Bloedel, the Royal Bank, and accounting firms Deloitte and Touche and Ernst and Young – floating in the bowl of a urinal.
One important lesson we can take from the Vancouver affair is that we cannot trust the so-called experts. Joyner refuses to concede the obvious – that Serrano’s work is a filthy attack on the Holy Father, and therefore on the Catholic Church. Apparently anything which attacks the Church, no matter how crudely, can have the label of art attached to it. To say that Serrano’s “masterpiece” constitutes a considered articulation of significant contemporary issues is simply rubbish.
In April of this year, a storm of controversy arose over an exhibition at Ottawa Regional Headquarters entitled “Rebel Icons.” Again it was defended by the bogus claim that the pieces on display performed the function of challenging conventional views; curator Jose Mansilla-Miranda claimed that Tony Monsanto’s college of photos and drawings of women in sexually explicit poses was actually a critique of the exploitation of women. “We can say to people,” he claimed, “Look at this, and look at your society.”
Not even this pretense of dialogue could be claimed for one of the entries- somebody’s bare bottom with a close-up of inflamed hemorrhoids. Nor could much of a claim be made for one exhibit offensive to Christians – a crucified figure with an image of a pig’s head and a real cow’s heart affixed to it. As one protestor noted, for too often “art” has been used to mark anti-religious bigotry and the grossest forms of sensationalism.
Images displayed in a bath of urine hardly constitute a type of art whose integrity must be supported. Even if it had been a work of art which was under discussion, Langan’s protest was valid. He asked, in bewilderment, what difficult issue, what issue at all, was raised by these photographs?; what were he and Serrano supposed to dialogue about? Even if this had been a work of art, even if it had brought up important contemporary issues, it still should not have been on view. Freedom of expression is not absolute; if it incites hatred against an identifiable religious body, as this work does, it should not be on display.
In each of the cases discussed above, rubbish is passed off as art by members of the artistic community, with the implication that those outside that community have no right to question its determination of what constitutes worthwhile art and whether or not it is important. Art is apparently sacrosanct. Obviously Catholics must try to defend, as vigorously as they can, good art against bad art, but they must also defend good reasoning against bad reasoning. If nothing else will do, we should stop the financial support.