There has always been something monstrously cynical about these make-believe art controversies of the Piss Christ genre, a phenomenon resurrected here in New York last week with the 48-hour press freakout over the "anti-American" artwork of the Drawing Center, a museum slated to move to the Ground Zero site.
The cynicism, it should be noted, is usually evident on both sides of the controversy. Oscar Wilde once described an English gentleman on a foxhunt as being the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable. George Pataki denouncing A Glimpse of What Life Can Be Like in a Free Country #6 is the shameless in pursuit of the talentless.
It's a symbiotic relationship in which a political hack and a hack artist conspire to boost each other's profiles. In a less politically charged time, this kind of thing is a great arrangement for both parties: Andres Serrano dunks crucifix in urine, Newt Gingrich freaks out about it, both end up with book deals.
But things are a little different in the post-9/11 era, and that's why the Drawing Center business is not quite the empty careerist transaction it appears at first glance to be. Things have gotten nervous enough in this country that these mini-pogroms against minor artists are a real threat to take on lives of their own and morph into a lasting and very dangerous cultural reflex, a routine method of smashing unconventional ideas.
In the case of the Drawing Center controversy, the positions of both sides were pretty clear. It so happened that the Center, a small Soho museum founded in 1977 which has had thousands of exhibits over the years, had a few pictures in its collection that were essentially bald political provocations. Among those were A Glimpse of What Life Could Be Like in a Free Country #6, which featured a pen-and-ink recreation of the notorious hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner image, with the wires emanating from his hands spelling the word "Liberty."
Now, this is certainly stupid art on the level of throwing a picture of Ronald Reagan on a pile of spent AZT bottles and naming it something like Great Bedside Manner. Glimpse is about as subtle as a pile of shit under a Christmas tree and contains, as far as I can tell, absolutely no ideas at all, just a statement in the form of a picture--a statement that adds absolutely nothing (while being considerably less shocking and impactful) to the real photographs of the Abu Ghraib prisoners that were leaked, to great effect, to the national media.
If the artist had at least titled the drawing, I Own Three Magic Markers and a Subscription to the Nation, that would be something, a joke at least. But a sense of humor is clearly beyond the artist, Amy Wilson, who in all likelihood was exclusively drawing horses and unicorns right up until a recent collision with an AMC broadcast of Norma Rae or the Counterpunch website.
The idea that anyone could be moved by this piece of art is hilarious. Beyond that, the drawing isn't even displayed in the Drawing Center anymore; it was last there in the fall of 2004.
None of that, however, prevented the Daily News from running last week's front-page shit-cannon salvo against this and a few other Drawing Center works. Under the ominous headline "Violated... Again," the paper blasted Wilson's picture as an "anti-American" abomination that is a "slap in the face of 3,000 innocents" and demanded that Gov. Pataki insist that the Drawing Center not feature such works when it moves to its new location at Ground Zero.
If Wilson had indeed conceived that drawing as something she intended to be displayed at Ground Zero, there is a scenario under which one could plausibly argue that this would indeed be offensive to the 9/11 victims. But she didn't conceive it as a 9/11 memorial. Nor did the Drawing Center plan on featuring it that way. What the Daily News was arguing was that the mere fact that the Drawing Center would ever display such a picture raised serious questions about its political sensibilities, and made their very fitness to be involved in the Ground Zero cultural center an open question.
Pataki ought to have answered the News by telling its editors to take a vacation, go get themselves laid somewhere, and come back ready to engage in something other than third-rate witch-hunting horseshit masquerading as advocacy journalism in a newspaper that would probably pay a hundred grand for an exclusive interview with Paris Hilton's chihuahua.
As the elected leader of our state and the ostensible defender of the rights of all New York citizens, Pataki ought to have recognized the News stunt for what it was: a cheap piece of Roman blood-theater in which some sorry pencil-wielding anonymous artist was thrown to the lions. If we had a political leader worth the title of governor, he would have stood up to this evil, lazy, bullying nonsense, and we might even have had a public discussion about what's actually behind these kinds of campaigns.
But we don't have such a political leader. We have George Pataki, whose response to the News was not only to cave completely to the paper's demands, but to add: "The Daily News did a good service by pointing out some of these things."
By the time Pataki made his statement, the Drawing Center story was a very different story from the one the News originally got its hands on. What started out as the most minor of stories about a few drawings that were guaranteed to be ignored by absolutely everybody transformed into something very ugly, no longer about drawings at all. The issue was now the fact of the governor of New York State being afraid to cross a bunch of barroom flag-wavers in public. This was not the age-old loyalty oath dynamic, the same phenomenon that last week also got passed a resolution in the U.S. House to seek a constitutional amendment banning flag desecration.
Like the Drawing Center business, the flag amendment is an obscenely irrelevant issue to waste government time on; even the bill's proponents could do no better than point to "111 documented incidents" of flag desecration since 1994. So we're clearly not dealing with a serious threat to national security here. What is real, and serious, is the political power play that puts congressmen and senators in the position of having to publicly vote against the flag--and face the same mechanism that, with the help of George Pataki, has just blasted Amy Wilson into space dust.
The difference between the art controversies of the Piss Christ era and the ones we're dealing with now is obvious. Back then society was arguing about the acceptable limits of vulgarity and obscenity, and the connection to a larger issue of free speech was mainly an abstraction--you had to connect a lot of dots to link Larry Flynt's wide-open beavers to the Jeffersonian ideal.
But now we have public officials and the media in the business of deciding who is a loyal American and who is not. You have a museum that has been denounced as anti-American, and effectively rebuked, because it featured an absolutely factual representation of an Iraqi prisoner of war. This isn't about censorship or even free speech; this is about cultural taboos and the ritual of public denunciations, which have their own politics and their own logical conclusion. And when even facts become anti-American, you know we're headed there.