Dung and Other Offal at the Gallery
A case in point was a show called "Sensation," and also the cause of one. The "Sensation" exhibit had the former Mayor of New York Rudolph Guiliani threatening to withdraw the museum's grant and even evict if the offending exhibit was not removed. A mess, but not nearly as messy as the dubious objets d'art themselves, one of which featured a rotting cow's head, another a formaldehyde-suspended bisected pig.
The institutionalized and publicly-funded assault on Catholic symbols coalesced in Chris Ofili's fecal smears. In "The Holy Virgin," Ofili depicts a black Madonna with dung and assorted female orifices cut out and pasted all over the canvas, evidently to affect a play on the word "holy." Ofili, who has been the toast of Britain's artistic circles for sometime, joins a cadre of poseurs and purveyors of what is known as concept art.
The most notorious of the bunch is Andres Serrano who immersed a crucifix in his own body fluid and called it "Piss Christ." Funded by the NEA, Serrano's next sample was a photo of a statuette of the Pope immersed in yet more of the same. You can guess what Serrano called this reflection of his barren soul, lazy mind and prolific bladder.
The capos at the Canadian Council for the Arts force their taxpayers to support a fair share of dead-weight conceptualists. Possessing of the same keen eye for talent as the NEA, Canada Council gave us Tamara Sanowar-Makham's creation, the "ultra-maxi priest," which is a vestment gown made of sanitary pads, and intended to express "the oppressive anti-female ideology of the Catholic Church." (If church oppression is what it takes to keep Tamara's creative cramps in check, I'm all for it.)
With a grant of $15,000 of the people's money, Canada Council also helped a Ms. Thorneycroft to celebrate "the gloriousness (sic) of putrefaction." The stupid professor solemnized her discovery of the "dust to dust" inevitability by hanging rotting rabbit carcasses up in a forest.
The Vancouver Sun's visual art critic—and I use the term loosely—never questioned the art value of the dung n' pee exhibits, but fixed on their power of protest. Michael Scott refuses or cannot distinguish between a portrait composed of the palm prints of children and a jar of urine in which a picture of the Pope has been immersed. Fancying himself the champion of gritty, confrontational real-life art, Scott doesn't discern the act of painting a portrait, however mediocre, from that of producing a sample of urine. And here precisely is the rub: to discern is bad, hence elevating one form of expression above the other garners the pejorative of elitism.
While I may be able to persuade you that my tuna-on-a-canvas has profound personal meaning, I should not be able to convince you that it has artistic validity. For art has to embody both technique and vision. It is a discipline, "indicating a love of structure, clarity, complexity, nuance and imaginative ambition," elements that are absent in the aforementioned pieces.
Ironically, the very—and only—thing that makes art popular, again in the words of Robert Hughes, art critic for the Times, "is …the embodiment of high ability and intense vision." While The People are not—never have been—the arbiters of quality, concept art is far from by the people or for the people. These exhibits are not a populist uprising against "academic art," as the critic Scott would have us believe. They are by pseudo-intellectuals and for pseudo-intellectuals.
The same pseudo critics have wrongly attached an African pedigree to Ofili's efforts: Ofili is said to be connecting with his African roots, because he borrows generously from the magic, and truly creative, little San people of Southern Africa, who delicately dotted their caves with beautiful mystical paintings. Evidently, the use of dung in Ofili's work is also an African thing.
I own African art, and I've observed the African artist at work. There is precious little in Ofili's art that is authentically African. The African artist is highly skilled. He achieves glorious sensuality without being offensive. And he would never relinquish his technical mastery for the ersatz Ofili-type rendition. In its origins, African art was utilitarian: it was meant to serve a ceremonial purpose. Commercialism has done nothing to change the deeply reverential nature of what was once tribal art: the African artist does not create to offend. The blackness of his Madonna excepted, there is nothing in Ofili's art that is African. He is the product of sloth; the anal-retentive who prefers to deconstruct, deface and smear.
If not for forced public funding, this faux art would fizzle out. Along with it should go "the double standard that protects Jewish and African-American symbols and icons but allows Catholicism to be routinely trashed by supercilious liberals and ranting gay activists. That a Jewish collector and a Jewish museum director had no compunction about selecting a parodic image of the Madonna from the whole of Chris Ofili's dung-bedecked oeuvre," writes Camille Paglia, "shows either stupidity or malice."
©1999 Ilana Mercer
A version of this column appeared in The North Shore News