Flag-waving, anti-arts blowhards leave Old Glory's ideals twisting in the wind

April 03, 1996|By MIKE LITTWIN

OUT IN FARAWAY Phoenix, the land of cactus and timeshares, they've got a nice little art museum, built there on the off chance somebody would occasionally want a break from the sun. It's the last place you'd expect to be embroiled in controversy.

That is, until the curator had the bright idea of showing the flag, "Old Glory" herself.

But this isn't your typical flag-appreciation exhibit. For example, there are no flag-folding demonstrations. And there's not a Boy Scout in sight.

Here's what you can see at the Phoenix Art Museum: a flag draped over a toilet. And there's another flag you're invited to step on. As one reviewer put it, there's something in this exhibit to offend everyone.

You see, this exhibit examines the use of the flag in contemporary art. Since some of that art is protest art, it inevitably upsets some people.

The American Legion, which believes in flags, but not necessarily in art unless it's on a Saturday Evening Post cover, has been protesting the exhibit. Well, that's what the Legion does. These boys don't sponsor field trips to the Louvre.

But you'd figure Newt Gingrich would be too busy to worry about a minor art display thousands of miles from Washington. And yet, he has managed to find the time to condemn an exhibit he's never seen.

Newtie accuses the museum of the kind of elitism which he says is dooming America to whatever is that we're doomed to (say, having to listen to Newtie?).

"We don't need these kinds of pathologies," Newtie says.

Like Newtie, I haven't seen the exhibit. But, from what I've read, it's pretty darn provocative. It might even make you think.

In fact, one of the displays is a 1961 work by William Copley, in which the word "Think" is placed where the stars usually go.

Look, I don't know if this is good art or bad art. But the exhibit does seem to meet some of the criteria for art.

Whatever else art is, it has nothing to do with unthinking, knee-jerk patriotism. That's the way they ran the art world in the Soviet Union, where art, if it didn't pay homage to the state, was condemned as counterrevolutionary. Meaning they either threw you in the gulag for 20 years or condemned you to a lifetime of borscht.

Art isn't supposed to make people comfortable, unless your idea of art is dogs playing poker.

Art isn't supposed to be safe, either.

In other words, if the politicians don't like it, I'm inclined to think it might be interesting. The critic for the Arizona Republic called it "brilliant."

The most controversial piece is Dread Scott's "What Is The Proper Way to Display the U.S. Flag?" The exhibit shows a photo of Koreans burning a flag. Beneath the photo is a book inviting comments. To reach the book, you have to step on a U.S. flag. If you don't want to step on the flag, the Phoenix museum has made a slight alteration, placing another comment book nearby.

OK, that's provocative. Scott enjoys provocative. At an earlier showing, he defended his work wearing a Mao T-shirt.

Outrageous, huh?

Not likely to get an NEA grant, huh?

That's the problem with NEA grants. The government, when it gives out money, wants to control the product. Art needs sponsorship, but it doesn't need control. It doesn't need politicians mindlessly defending the flag against artists either.

Actually, it's somewhat encouraging that somebody thinks art is dangerous.

The man who set up the exhibit said the museum was reacting to the Supreme Court decision that protected flag burning as free speech and the proposed amendment to the Constitution that would overrule that ruling.

This is elitism, Newtie insists. "When I talk about elite vs. classic American values, I think the Phoenix art museum is a perfect example," he says.

For Newtie, who once said the Susan Smith drownings underscored the failure of Democratic Party policies, just showing this artwork -- not saying how we should react to it, only hoping that we will react to it -- is elitism, whatever that means.

Call it the dulling down of America, by the V-chipped, anti-Hollywood, anti-popular culture, anti-arts, anti-elitism crowd.

It's born of a belief that there's one kind of American who speaks one language and thinks one way, the culturally correct way in which you never have to ask yourself this question: Is it better to wave the flag or to consider what it represents?

Pub Date: 4/03/96

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