Frederick art center discovers Bush nude is risky business

January 20, 1992|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Sun Staff Correspondent

FREDERICK -- The Delaplaine Visual Arts Center finds itself in jeopardy of losing $500,000 in state money because of a controversy surrounding an oil painting that depicts President George Bush and caricatures of other public personalities in the nude.

The anti-war painting, called "A Peace Treaty and the New World Order," created an outcry even before it went on exhibit Saturday.

But that exhibit led Frederick County's legislative delegation to think twice about sponsoring a bill to provide the arts center with money for a permanent home.

As part of a much larger exhibit that deals with many of society's ills, ranging from homelessness to homicide among minorities, the oil painting was the arts center's attempt to be taken seriously by the arts community, said executive director Melinda Wimer.

"We were strongly encouraged by the [Maryland] State Arts Council to show more diverse art, more controversial art and not just landscapes and ducks," Ms. Wimer said. "This show seemed to answer that."

The state arts council is an agency that recommends on allocations of state money for various arts activities and enterprises. No one from the arts council could be found yesterday to comment on the Frederick controversy.

The debate raised questions at least reminiscent of an 18-month political debate at the federal level that ended in October 1990 over whether the National Endowment for the Arts should get taxpayer-financed support for works some found objectionable. Implicit in that debate was a question of whether pulling financial support smacked of censorship.

Ms. Wimer ducked the censorship issue, however. She said the lawmakers' decision had nothing to do with censorhip but stemmed from the reaction of their constituents.

"I don't think it's an issue of censorship," she said. "The painting is still here. The art community would have accused us of censorship had we not exhibited the painting."

The painting by Austrian artist Josef Schutzenhofer, whom Ms. Wimer described as anti-war and anti-American, and the other works in the exhibit, were chosen by a panel of jurors.

Although aware the work by Mr. Schutzenhofer might be offensive to some, Ms. Wimer said the arts center was unprepared for the backlash.

That was particularly true when it came from local lawmakers, who in the past have been supportive of the center, she said.

After learning of the public uproar, lawmakers decided last week to hold -- at least temporarily -- a bond bill that would provide the center with $500,000 in matching dollars to renovate an old mill as a permanent home for exhibits and educational programs.

"We didn't anticipate this type of response," Ms. Wimer said. "They pulled the bill, although none of them had seen [the painting]. It was very disappointing for us."

Since the exhibit, which runs through Feb. 21, opened to the public, at least three of the county's six-member legislative delegation have viewed the 6-by-8-foot oil painting.

"I see the piece receiving the most notoriety as pornography," said Del. George H. Littrell Jr., D-Frederick, who visited the center yesterday. "There were several exhibits that I thought were well done and delivered serious messages. I'm not sure that one in particular delivers a message."

In the center of the painting, President Bush stands nude, his feet pigeon-toed. Entertainer Dolly Parton, also nude, stands to the president's right. Dressed in a military breast plate and red briefs, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., stands to the left.

Retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf is depicted wearing a medieval breastplate, but is nude from the waist down. The shield he carries is emblazoned with Hitler's face. His foot rests on the back of a kneeling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"Art is in the eye of the beholder," said Ms. Wimer, who has been deluged with calls both in support of and in opposition to the painting.

Sensitive to the public, the arts center's board of directors directed the staff to partition the painting from the rest of the exhibit. Signs were also posted to warn show visitors of the painting's possible offensiveness.

"We thought we had addressed the sensitivity issue," Ms. Wimer said.

"We thought there would be some controversy about the painting but we never expected this . . ."

Hundreds of people went through the arts center, which is on the second floor of a mall that sells antiques, on Saturday, sometimes standing in a line that snaked around the block. The arts center was closed to the public yesterday.

Del. J. Anita Stup, R-Frederick, who arranged a special visit yesterday, said she found the painting offensive.

She said the depiction of a nude Dolly Parton set "women back 25 years. . . . I was aghast that women would be depicted in this manner," she said.

Ms. Wimer was hopeful lawmakers would reconsider the bond bill after visiting the exhibit and learning of the center's efforts to be sensitive to the public.

But Mr. Littrell said he was uncertain whether there would be support for funding after the public outcry.

"I think community support for the bill might be weaker now," he said.

"As community support is weaker, the legislative support might be weaker too. It could mean this is not the year to try to get [funding]."

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