Message, not medium, is the issue

April 28, 1996|By Glenn McNatt

HAVE THE politicization of the arts, the constant attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts by right-wing politicians and the climate of partisan intolerance reached the point where museums can no longer function as showplaces for new art and artists? These questions were prompted by a recent Maryland Institute, College of Art, show by photographer Cindy Konits, whose video documentary, "The Veil of Intent," addressed the issue of censorship during last year's "Going for Baroque" exhibit at the Walters Art Gallery.

The "Going for Baroque" show was a collaboration between the Walters, the Maryland Institute and the Contemporary, a museum dedicated to the art of today.

Since one of the show's purposes was to explore the responses of contemporary artists to the art of the past, the Walters and the Contemporary invited several students at the institute to create new works to contrast with the Walters' collection of 17th-century Baroque paintings. Ms. Konits produced an interactive computer program that examined ideas of gender and sexual identity in Baroque painting, which the show's curator accepted.

But shortly before the show opened last September, Ms. Konits was informed that the Walters had decided not to exhibit her piece. According to the museum, it was concerned that the content of her work might be inappropriate for minors in the audience.

Though the video showed only a few brief frames from the banned work, Ms. Konits had set up a computer in the exhibition hall earlier this month allowing visitors to run through the program themselves. The display was activated by a computer mouse that clicked on the prompts generated by the program.

There was nothing pornographic or obscene about any of the images I saw. Most of them, in fact, were simply digitized versions of 17th-century paintings and engravings -- some of them quite famous -- already in the Walters' collection.

Subliminal messages

Their arrangement in the computer program put them in a different context, however. Ms. Konits had contrived to present them in such a way that the viewer was made explicitly aware of the subliminal messages about sexual politics and gender coding that underlie much Baroque painting.

The era, like our own, was fascinated by the dramatic possibilities of violence, including violence against women. That these impulses were almost always in some way sublimated or masked by the era's conventions of painting made them no less powerful in their effect on the viewer.

For the contemporary artist, the problem is to deconstruct these familiar images and show how the meanings they convey still affect the way we view ourselves and the world.

Ms. Konits used an interactive computer program to reinterpret the Old Masters, but she might well have chosen to raise the issue through other approaches based on different technologies.

The point is not which medium the artist employs -- photograph, computer graphic, paint on canvas -- but rather how effectively he or she addresses the problem posed by the proliferation of images in contemporary society and their impact on our culture.

This is admittedly a postmodern view of the role of the artist and the artist's relation to works of art. Many people are troubled by the postmodern perspective because it seems to reject the idea that art ought be about "life," and instead makes art itself the primary subject matter of art.

The self-referential quality of contemporary art infuriates traditionalists in particular because it treats tradition not as something sacred and inviolable, but as just another artifact of history to be manipulated, broken down and reassembled -- in a word, "deconstructed" -- for the edification of the artist and his audience.

I do not know whether history ultimately will vindicate this vision of the artist's task, or whether it will be judged a temporary aberration stemming from a traumatic loss of moral and spiritual tTC values. In a democracy, it is said, the people get the leaders they deserve; perhaps the same holds true for a people and their artists.

The point is that a great many people find the postmodern project profoundly troubling and regard its works as blasphemy. They are going to look for anything they can find to hang their anxieties on.

Ms. Konits' work may well have contained images that some parents might have objected to their children seeing. That is a different issue from censorship, however.

The museum undoubtedly has a great many paintings, sculptures and engravings that some parents wouldn't want their children to see. But does that mean these works can never be shown?

Institutions terrified

If the Walters and the Contemporary panicked at the thought of becoming targets of the New Puritanism, it is only because politicians like Sen. Jesse Helms have succeeded in creating such a climate of intimidation and fear that institutions that depend on government funding are terrified of doing anything that might be considered remotely controversial.

Apparently they are so frightened of partisan reprisals they are barely able to perform their primary function, which is to display works that challenge, educate and enlighten viewers.

Instead, our most important venues are to be confined to displaying only the most blandly conventional, nonthreatening art. This may satisfy the decency police for the moment. The irony is that, ultimately, this capitulation to reaction puts our democracy at far greater peril than anything that might be shown on a museum wall.

Pub Date: 4/28/96

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