2 min

Beyond shock lies value

Unfortunately, people as well as paintings are thus labelled offensive.

Elephant poo has been identified in the general vicinity of the Virgin Mary. And the city that never sleeps is freaking out over it. Oh please.

A painting on display at the Brooklyn Museum Of Art depicts Mary among the elephant crap and images from porno mags. The city’s mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, says it’s a “vicious and disgusting attack on the Catholic religion.” He says he’ll evict the museum from its city-owned building, and cut off its funding. Catholics have been protesting outside the museum, and security’s been beefed up. Meanwhile, unprecedented crowds have turned out to see what the fuss is all about.

It’s easy to paint Giuliani as a philistine clown, especially once you’ve read the reviews. The Globe And Mail calls the painting “a dazzling and delicate portrait.” The New Yorker says it’s “gorgeous, sweet and respectful of its subject.”

One supposes that the mayor and the protesters are eager to be offended – so eager that they can’t see beyond their own shock and outrage. They’re interpreting the painting simplistically, and projecting hostile intent onto the painter.

The reviews suggest there are other possible interpretations. The arty among us snicker at the mayor’s lack of connoisseurship. Art is all about multiple meanings, and their tensions, harmonies and ambiguities. Ever since critics called the Impressionist painters “beasts” more than a century ago, art aficionados have been both irritated and tickled by the outrage art can provoke.

Lots of art has been offending people of late. There’s controversy over the Cindy Sherman show at the Art Gallery Of Ontario. Some folks believe children will be traumatized at the sight of pimply bums. How on earth, then, will these children survive their own oily adolescence? And in Oakville, a work of art has been removed from a show because its medium – it’s a vestment made of maxi-pads – has been deemed offensive.

Gay and lesbian artists are often burdened with false expectations that they are out to shock and offend. Last fall, the Globe And Mail, in keeping with its blasé, been-there-done-that attitude, found two gay shows lacking because they weren’t shocking enough! Reviews of Live With It, a play about gay playwright Joe Orton, and a show of paintings by Attila Richard-Lukacs, presumed that the intent of the shows was merely provocative. And when the shows failed to provoke, reviewers couldn’t be bothered searching for subtleties, and labelled the work bland and boring.

People with preconceived notions often dismiss or crudely interpret unconventional or challenging art. They refuse to investigate either the object of their horror or their horror itself. Unfortunately, people as well as paintings are thus labelled offensive. That’s why folks who are freaked out by homosexuality interpret same-sex hand-holding as “flaunting it,” refusing to see something as simple as gentle affection, and refusing to see the destructive effect of their own blindness.

Promiscuous homosexuals are similarly vilified. Prudes refuse to look beneath the surface – hundreds of partners! – and see love expressed and pleasure experienced on an astounding level. This issue, Xtra brings you a feature on free love amongst lesbians. What’s it all about? Well, it’s about being true to oneself. It’s about being considerate of others. It’s about developing an awareness of the repercussions of one’s actions. Ultimately, it’s about working for fulfillment and happiness for oneself and others.

We’re accustomed to artists and activists who employ shock as a tool (though shock has lost much of its punch since the days of the Impressionists). And good for them. People need some shaking up. But let’s be honest – behind shocking degeneracy we sometimes find sweet and wholesome goodness.

David Walberg is Publisher for Xtra.