Artists are ones who need shaking up

March 25, 2002|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

I'VE BEEN trying to work myself into a state of high dudgeon over the decision by the Jewish Museum in New York to host a display of controversial Holocaust art.

So far, I haven't had much luck. I look at the controversy over the exhibits -- a death camp made of Legos, a photograph of a man holding up a Diet Coke can amid a group of emaciated Jews -- and what emerges is not so much anger as, well, I was going to say ambivalence, but that's not quite the right word. It's more a sense of recognition, a sense that we've been to this crossroads of art and indignation before, and it's no accident we keep coming back.

Rather, we are repeatedly brought here by self-anointed agents provocateurs who say they want to raise questions, make us think, shake us up. Always something like that. And you and me -- the targets of all this questioning, thinking, shaking -- are never too thrilled about it.

So, predictably, when the exhibit opened March 17, the demonstrators came out in force, holding up signs and chanting in anger.

My sympathies were with them. But even knowing that this was going on at a Jewish museum, of all places, did not light my ire. I had only this weary sense that here was this year's Virgin Mary decorated with elephant dung or crucifix dunked in urine. Here, in other words, was this year's Sacred Thing vulgarized or trivialized In The Name of Art.

Which suggests to me that the issue we ought to be discussing here is not -- as some would have it -- the First Amendment. Rather, it's the role of art in our culture.

And that's a difficult discussion to have because art is, by definition, a personal and subjective thing.

I mean, what kind of stuff do you like?

I'm partial to superhero paintings by Alex Ross myself. Maybe your idea of art is landscapes, abstract sculpture or portraits.

Maybe you're a fan of the Impressionists. Or maybe you're one of those people who's moved to tears by a pile of garbage arranged just so.

In which case, I personally think you're nuts, but -- whatever. Different art moves different people in different ways.

But art, in whatever form, serves one fundamental purpose. It helps us to reflect and interpret the world.

I did not see the Holocaust. But I "know" it, largely from the art it inspired. I've seen movies and photographs and read books, and so have this sense of it as a time deserving of terrible reverence.

We don't do reverence anymore. That's so 20th century. Instead, we are all irony and self-awareness, subtext and cynicism. Whatever happens, we've become conditioned to wait for the punch line. We've come to believe there always is a punch line.

That's one reason Sept. 11 caught so many of us off stride. Not just the horror of it, but the fact that there was no joke at the end, no subtext poking our ribs. The fact that it forced us to render our emotions in primary colors -- love, fear, anger, patriotism. The fact that it made us something we hadn't been in a long time and weren't sure how to be again: reverent.

I'm sure the guy with the Diet Coke can imagines himself to be making a terribly trenchant statement about crass commercialization. And maybe in his rush to make that statement, he doesn't understand -- or doesn't care -- that he becomes what he professes to abhor. Or that self-awareness is not its own reward.

Still, the protesters come, shock value is achieved and publicity is had. I guess that's something.

Unfortunately, it's not -- for me, at least -- enough to shake this nagging certainty that we have become a society without the capacity for reverence. And that there is an emptiness in such a society that paintings and sculptures cannot hope to fill.

So, in some sense, the fury we saw on March 18 seems misplaced. The art doesn't trouble me half as much as the artists do.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via e-mail at

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