Land sakes, the things you see on Mt. Royal Avenue

March 13, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Isn't it, like, just awesome the way young people on American high school and college campuses have embraced and refined the new digital technology?

Take the Maryland Institute College of Art, which some of its neighbors wish you would.

There, just as the daffodils were coming into bloom, assorted six-foot fingers suddenly sprouted from the earth in the median strip of Mount Royal Avenue. One of them appeared to be wearing a condom. It was a subtle blending of art and science. It created a certain mood, a certain ambiance. It also created a flaplet.

The exhibition was named ''Fingers of Fear.'' The exhibitionist, Steve Jones, a student at the institute, proudly following in the footsteps of Michaelangelo, Rodin and, perhaps, Charles Addams, erected it, if that's the proper word, both to display his own creative genius and to epater les bourgeois, for their own good, of course.

The digital display lobbed a political message, as all art in our hypersensitized era is expected to, in the general direction of the public. The message itself was a little murky, at least to the aesthetically deprived, but it can probably be assumed to have something to do with safe sex, the ozone layer, free speech for those who say the right things, and other front-line campus preoccupations normally immune to criticism.

But then, just like that, came confrontation and catastrophe. That great unwashed collection of dim bulbs known as the public didn't appreciate the young sculptor's public-service message. There was a buzz of resentment, mutterings from legislators and eventually a request from the institute that Mr. Jones put his fingers, at least the prophylacticized one, someplace else.

When he was first confronted in this fashion with the mailed fist of official censorship he obeyed, reluctantly. But then, in a sudden cry of independence from the gulag in which he suddenly found himself, he put it back -- now draped symbolically in black.

The artistic community, which digs symbolism, got the message. Here was a creative voice which would not be stilled. It was a moment of high drama, there along Mt. Royal Avenue.

Then came the moment of violence. In the dark of night, nTC vigilantes arrived, smashed the plaster fingers to rubble, and raced away. They ignored non-digital sculpture that was also on display. Their actions were recorded by the institute's security cameras, but no positive identification has yet been made.

Theories abound, however. Some say the attackers wore Klan-like hoods and robes, others that they were elderly blue-haired ladies who bludgeoned the artwork with their walking sticks before escaping in a Nash Rambler. It is widely believed by authorities that they were registered Republicans, possibly followers of Newt Gingrich or listeners to talk radio.

Anyway, the investigation of this shocking hate crime is ongoing. There is talk of making assaults on artwork a federal offense, especially if the artwork were produced at an institution which receives federal funds, or ever wanted to. Local law enforcement is discussing a task force to find the finger felons.

The artist has reported himself freaked out. His gentler classmates are amazed and stunned at this demonstration that some Baltimoreans really take art seriously.

The Maryland Institute College of Art, which prides itself on its relations with its neighbors, has yet to announce a new policy concerning future erections of condom-covered fingers in the middle of Mt. Royal or other nearby public streets, but is believed to be working on one. Condom manufacturers have offered to sheathe future statuary at half price.

Is there a moral here? Of course there is, probably half a dozen in fact. For example, if you stick your finger in someone's eye you shouldn't be surprised if he responds by breaking it off.

But the most practical moral is this: When you wish to practice free expression by placing objects likely to be deemed offensive on display in the public streets, you should make sure they're constructed of reinforced concrete, not plaster.

''The Moving Finger writes,'' sang Omar, ''and having writ,/ Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit/ Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,/ Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.''

What does that mean, then? Ah, who knows? The meaning's lost, with winter's snows. The deed is done, and now, alas, the student sculptor's back in class. Along Mt. Royal, young aesthetes linger, pondering the fate of Steve Jones' finger.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 3/13/97

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