BMA mistaken in removing artwork

October 01, 2001|By Edward Wortech

WHAT GOOD is art, what is its role during a national tragedy?

That was the kind of question my students asked me after the terrorist attack.

I tried to answer honestly. Art is no substitute for doctors or firefighters, but art can and always has played an important role in both understanding and helping to heal human tragedy throughout history.

Art is a way to communicate feelings that words won't or can't shape or describe.

It's an alternate path our senses can take to understand and process the unthinkable.

Throughout human history, art works to remember the dead, pray for strength and celebrate that even in suffering there can be hope and courage.

For this healing and understanding to take place, art must be available to everyone, and it must be allowed to testify freely.

On a day when my students asked about the role of art in difficult times, I also had to explain why the Baltimore Museum of Art chose to remove a long-standing piece of art from its gallery. Honesty compelled me to say it was the wrong thing to do.

The decision to take down Christopher Wool's "Terrorist" image was a mistake because it denied art's role as a disturbing catharsis, a sometimes troubling messenger that forces us to deal with emotions and ideas we'd prefer to deny.

As any therapist will tell you, denial is no answer, and avoidance leads to deeper problems.

On the surface, the reason given for the work's removal was that it might upset people.

That's true, but people can easily choose not to look at the work of art - at that moment, or ever. The BMA should have been mindful that what troubles one person might be the very same object that provides the light of understanding and release for another.

Visual art that aspires to greatness and sharing is not simple decoration or visual Muzak. One can get at a definition of art by stating that by its very nature it evokes a strong response from a viewer, a response that can range from the deepest tranquility to the painful understanding of another human being's loss.

If art is only pleasant or polite, then we would lose some of our greatest treasures. There would be no Holocaust Museum, no Vietnam War Memorial, and, of course, we would need to purge our houses of worship and galleries of those gruesome images of crucifixion, martyrdom and suffering. Sadly, that role of art is most compromised when well-intentioned editing or censorship takes place, a role we as a nation need now more than ever.

Right now, we need the ability to communicate and understand another culture or point of view. When I see the beautiful geometry of Islamic art, I know it is a faith and culture that endorses beauty and order in life, not death and chaos.

The combat photographs of W. Eugene Smith and Margaret Bourke White helped me as a child and as an adult to understand more deeply the sacrifices made by my father and uncle who fought in World War II. These photographs are not easy to look at, but to learn something deeply and truly is rarely easy or entertaining.

That word, "entertain" may also explain how art has so often become misunderstood and misused in modern culture. We've come to think of museums and art as an arm of the entertainment industry. Museums can serve as recreation, but they're not visual theme parks meant only for escape and diversion.

If there is anything to celebrate in the misunderstanding that led to the removal of "Terrorist" at the BMA, it should be about how powerful art can be in a media culture where we're assaulted by images everywhere, every day.

Perhaps, despite others' pronouncement of the death of traditional art forms, we've discovered yet again that the silent still image can speak to our most secret fears and joy we thought despair had erased.

Edward Wortech is chair of the Department of Art and Art History at Goucher College.

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