When art is provocative, outrage is no surprise

March 23, 1997|By Glenn McNatt

&TC STEVE JONES, THE 22-year-old Maryland Institute, College of Art student whose "Fingers of Fear" sculpture was smashed by vandals earlier this month, says he was shocked, just shocked by the reaction his artwork provoked.

"I had no idea any of this would happen, that people would get so upset," the artist insisted last week. "I don't understand how this became such an outrage."

The sculpture -- five large, pink ceramic fingers installed on the median strip of Mount Royal Avenue near the school -- was meant to express the fears today's young people face, Jones said.

For example, a wrinkled thumb stood for the fear of aging, while a digit with a wedding ring suggested ambivalence about marriage.

The finger with a condom on it represented the anxieties and dangers associated with sex, Jones said.

Not surprisingly, that's the one that caused a stir among the institute's neighbors and passers-by on Mount Royal Avenue. They thought it looked like something else.

Can you blame them? After all, the piece clearly was making a very graphic statement. Visually, the offending finger completely overshadowed its companions, so whatever context they might have provided was lost.

If you put up something that looks just like a giant male member sheathed tightly in a condom, you can hardly complain when people think that's what it is.

To me, the more interesting question is why any display of the male sexual organ seems to arouse such violent anger and disgust. The huge controversy over Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs a few years ago is a perfect example of the extreme reactions depictions of male frontal nudity provoke.

The answer, apparently, has to do with the enduring legacy of this country's Puritan past and the shame our culture still harbors in regard to the human body.

Ironically, this legacy continues to shape attitudes despite an omnipresent popular culture that uses commercialized sex to sell everything from automobiles to compact discs.

"Fundamentally, we still live in a culture that is very puritanical and has a lot of shame about sexuality," says Mark Kamrad, a psychiatrist at Baltimore's Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital.

Kamrad says that suppressed sexual conflicts invariably arouse intense emotion, which then finds expression in a wide variety of behaviors, including violence.

For vandals to bludgeon Jones' sculpture to bits really "is not surprising," Kamrad says.

"There are many behaviors that amount to phallus-smashing," he contends. "For example, suppressing gays in the military, opposition to sex education, witch hunts for alleged sex abusers -- all these are expressions of a fundamental anxiety and ambivalence in our attitudes toward sex."

Kamrad believes that the country's Puritan legacy has left Americans less able than people in other parts of the world to integrate sexuality into their normal psychological landscape.

"So when you put provocative pieces with highly charged sexual content in public places you have got to expect controversy, and you have to expect some people may respond to that challenge through misbehavior," he says.

Which is why I find amusing Jones' claim that he was truly unprepared for the reaction that greeted his work. It certainly seemed meant to provoke, and that is exactly what it accomplished.

In the days after the sculpture was smashed, several people asked me what I thought of Jones' work on purely aesthetic grounds, disregarding the issue of whether Mount Royal Avenue was an appropriate venue for such a work.

I replied that, for me at least, it was impossible to separate the two. What a work of art means is intimately tied up with the context in which it is seen. Context is part and parcel of how well a work realizes its creator's intentions.

My own feeling was that the sculpture, like its creator, seemed a bit naive. But Jones is only 22 and still a student. So perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised he didn't fully appreciate why some people might take offense at his artwork. In any case, I think he meant no harm.

As a seasoned editor once told me, good judgment comes from experience. Unfortunately, he went on, experience mostly comes from bad judgment.

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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