Art, Propriety and Politics

January 21, 1992

In trying to be taken seriously by the artistic community, Frederick's Delaplaine Visual Arts Center reached beyond idyllic depictions of landscapes and ducks -- and now finds itself in danger of losing $500,000 in state funding. The contretemps illustrates again the power of visual art to offend, as well as to educate. It also demonstrates the power of politics and controversy to attract more interest -- and visitors -- to an art exhibition than cultural inquisitiveness ever could.

Publicity about an anti-war painting by Austrian Josef Schutzenhofer has drawn hundreds of people to a show of artistic work dealing with problems facing society today. Many viewers have taken offense at the angry painting -- but plenty of the outrage is coming from people who have not yet seen the painting themselves. Perhaps the outcry is not surprising, given the painting's content, which includes nude figures of Dolly Parton and a pigeon-toed President Bush, along with a partially clothed Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf with his foot on Saddam Hussein's back, brandishing a shield with Hitler's picture on it. Standing nearby is Sen. Jesse Helms in a breastplate and red briefs.

Mr. Schutzenhofer intended for the painting to jar viewers' sensibilities as a way of making them confront the realities of war. No doubt he has succeeded with many viewers. But others, including several members of the Frederick County legislative delegation, have found a convenient distraction in questions of politics and propriety.

Certainly, depicting the president in the buff is not meant to be a sign of respect. But the point of political commentary -- artistic or otherwise -- is not to preserve office-holders' dignity but rather to air disagreements, sometimes in angry, offensive ways.

Unfortunately, this larger argument has gotten lost behind offended sensibilities. Some people are even raising charges of pornography, but that seems hard to justify when every museum worthy of the name has paintings that include nudes.

More troubling is the decision by several of the county's legislators to put a hold on a $500,000 bond bill that would provide matching dollars for the center to renovate an old mill as a permanent home. We trust they will change their minds. After all the brouhaha about grants to controversial artists from the National Endowment for the Arts, politicians should realize that, while Americans may like to argue about the politics and propriety of art, when it comes to flaps like that surrounding the Schutzenhofer painting, most of them want to see for themselves.

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