"It's ugly as sin."
With that infelicitous sentence, Lance Mannion, the Janet Maslin of blogospherical culture crit, launches a ship of tears on behalf of the poor hoi polloi, insulted as ever by Art That Is Offensive. His topic is the now-infamous Chocolate Jesus, about which I'll say something later, but his subject is this:
Here's what works like chocolate Jesuses, and crucifixes floating in urine, and Virgin Marys painted with elephant dung do for art: A whole lot of people who know better waste time and intellectual energy defending a piece of crap, the Philistines on the Right enjoy another dose of self-righteous outrage and meanwhile get lots of publicity for themselves, and lots and lots of people who don't know much about art but know what they like are convinced yet again that ART is a deliberate finger in their eye, that artists are self-aggrandizing mountebanks and talent-less hacks out only to make a name for themselves and a fast buck and that liberals and intellectuals are pompous, self-rigtheous blitherers who despise regular folks and everything regular folks hold dear.It's fair to say that Andres Serrano is held in much higher regard and greater notoriety by Mannion and the rest of the plain people than the glamorites of the art world that Lance regrets so extravagently, but though I certainly hold no aesthetic brief for his work, here is something Andres Serrano did that a thousand Monet retrospectives could never accomplish: It launched a long, national discussion on the nature of art, on the nature of free speech, on the meaning of expression, on the boundaries of offense. Was that discussion productive in the sense that it actually expanded the limits of acceptance? Probably not. But was it good in the sense that it made people talk about art, even to disdain it? Yes. More conversations about art took place around the dinner table after the "Piss Christ" controversy than before it.
Oh well. At least it keeps the cash registers in the museum gift shops ringing.
As for Virgin Marys "painted with elephant dung"--it's just a shockingly ignorant and contemptuous dismissal of something about which Lance Mannion is entirely unfamiliar, and about which he made no effort to educate himself. Chris Ofili is one of our finer contemporary painters, who has done important work to combine pop image, inconography, traditional African arts (and not just crude primitivism), and traditional European techniques, and who paints lovely, lyrical, and--are you listening, Mannion?--accessible works. He does not "paint with dung." He incorparates petrified elephant dung as three-dimensional elements in two-dimensional works. He does so as a gesture to the traditional materials of African art. Maybe he also just likes the way it lays on canvas. Ofili is a British-Caribbean artist of Nigerian descent. He studied cave-paintings and other ancient art in Zimbabwe. Here is a painting called "No Woman, No Cry":
Here is the "Holy Virgin Mary" that Lance Mannion dislikes without ever having seen:
These are not "offensive." They're carefully constructed, skillfully executed, delicately-patterned, deeply-referenced wroks of contemporary art that are both reverent and humorous. Mannion would defent Egon Schiele's work of whores diddling themselves, but he cringes because he once heard somewhere that some black guy painted the Holy BVM with elephant shit. That tells you something about his taste, and it tells you something about his biases.
Now the so-called Chocolate Jesus isn't ugly as sin, unless Mannion wants to make the claim that every Catholic cross is equally ugly. It's the same image of the Christ as you see in any church or on any necklace crucifix. If you're shocked that it lacks a loincloth, well, don't ever visit the Vatican, because it is positively rife with penises. Cosmo Cavallaro has done some pretty goofy, food-based work in the past, but the idea of crafting Jesus in chocolate is pretty clever, really. The Catholic Jesus is edible, after all. That's the whole point of the eucharist. If you think about it for just one moment, it's irreverant, but it's not offensive. I note that Mannion blogrolls the popular humor blog Jesus' General. That, also, is irreverant. But that's one of the funny things about Art: the ignorant don't understand that it's also allowed to be funny.
Setting that aside, however, who's to say that art oughtn't be offensive, provocactive, flamboyant, attention-seeking, and deliberately so. "Giving offense," Coetzee tells us, is as important to the aesthetic endeavor as anything else. Offense is the one emotion that people can't seem to ignore or keep to themselves. Even more than other angers, it is the most public of human emotions. We can't help but give voice to our offense, and as I said above of Serrano, that has the salutary affect of getting people talking. Meanwhile, if it is true, as Mannion contends, that a lot of people think artists are just out for a fast buck, then it's plain that people don't know much about money and the arts, and more to the point, that people are gross hypocrites, because who, pray tell, is not trying to make a fast buck. As the saying goes: This is America.
The short and sweet of it is this: the world already has a Thomas Kinkade, painter of light, and already has its "Waterlillies" prints by the bazillion, and already has vast tonnages of religious and mythological statuary whose nudity, mysteriously, offends no one anymore. As for contemporary art and artists, the peddlers of offense among them--some of we poor, viewing publicans are willing to risk offense in hope of its particular rewards; for the rest of you, avert your eyes. Here is the interesting thing about an art gallery door: you are not obligated to pass.