Controversial art draws crowds, but frightens politicians

January 26, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

It sounds like an art gallery's dream come true.

The Delaplaine Visual Arts Center in Frederick is currently showing the most topical and most popular art exhibit since it opened in 1986. Instead of the usual quilts or landscapes, "Right Down to the Roots" deals with such subjects as homeless women, race relations, the Gulf War and the Holocaust.

Instead of the usual desultory attendance -- an average of maybe 25 to 30 people a day -- 800 people saw the show the first two days it was open.

And they were involved. Last Tuesday morning, when I was there, those in the gallery were predominantly men, a number of them engaging in lively discussions about the show.

As anybody at all familiar with the art world knows, such a response to a show is almost unheard of. Community involvement on that level with art should be cause for dancing in the streets.

But for the Delaplaine, the dream may turn out to be a nightmare.

Because of a controversy over the show, Frederick county's legislative delegation decided to reconsider submitting to the legislature a $500,000 bond bill that would partially fund renovation of an old mill as a permanent home for the art center.

This ridiculous situation was brought about by one work of art, a painting called "A Peace Treaty and a New World Order" by Josef Schutzenhofer. An anti-Gulf War work in the style of a baroque history painting, it depicts George Bush and Dolly Parton nude, North Carolina's Republican Senator Jesse Helms half-clothed in armor, and retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf half-nude and carrying a shield with a picture of Hitler on it.

Although the show's jurors awarded the work one of its two first place honors, and although it is in an alcove posted with a warning for those who don't want to see strong material, the painting has caused enough controversy in Frederick to have the politicians running scared. Sad, but hardly surprising.

What's going on in Frederick is just one more in a series of recent art world events that are deeply disturbing for a number of reasons.

First, it's merely the latest example of what might be called the Mapplethorpe syndrome. In 1989, works dealing with religion and sex, by Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe, sparked a conservative revolt in Congress against the National Endowment for the Arts. Since then, controversial and not-so-controversial art has increasingly come under fire for reasons ranging from right-wing anger to political correctness.

A recent story in the Windsor, Ontario Star cited everything from photographs of nude males being called "mental pollution" to a show about Victorian racial attitudes that was accused of racism to a reproduction of Goya's famous painting "Naked Maja" removed from a university classroom because showing it was perceived by a professor as sexual harassment.

The Mapplethorpe-Serrano uproar certainly wasn't the first art controversy, but it has started a trend of art bashing that at

times would be downright laughable if it were not so ominous. In too many cases, the result, if not outright defeat for artistic expression, is some sort of compromise that eats away at artistic freedom. And each such compromise or defeat makes the next one easier. Which brings us to:

Second, nothing happens in a vacuum, and certainly this incident won't. If the Frederick delegation decides not to back the bond bill, it will have implications for more than just the Delaplaine Visual Arts Center. It will be cited over and over, here and elsewhere, and will undoubtedly help to give other art organizations pause. Timidity feeds on itself.

Third, controversy over art is perceived as wrong, when just the opposite is true. As Melinda Wimer, executive director of the Delaplaine Center, said last week, the exhibit highlights "issues that we cannot hide from." Even if many people come to the exhibit only because of the argument over one painting, they can't help being exposed to the rest of the show and led to think about the issues it raises. What's wrong with that? Art is all about getting people to think.

The Frederick delegation, far from reconsidering submitting the bill, should be proud of the Delaplaine Center. It's shown that it's a much more vital part of the community than anyone would have thought, and, if anything, it deserves more, not less, state money as a result of this show.

Fourth, a vocal minority can so often sway legislators. The National Rifle Association, for instance, repeatedly launches overwhelming campaigns against proposed gun control laws. And in general, people are more likely to register an opinion against than for something.

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