They don’t know how to love him

Diane Suffern at the HotAir Greenroom calls attention to another art world desecration of a desecration:

Here’s the statement from the artist’s web catalog:

The destruction of the Enrique Chagoya “The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals” at the Loveland Museum Gallery was the direct result of the inflammatory and false descriptions of the print in the press and by those protesting it’s [sic] inclusion in our exhibition. The controversial image has been demonized as “pornographic”, “obscene” and “depicting Jesus in a sex act” when this is not the truth.

We deplore the violence and intolerance of this act. It is an insidious form of coercive censorship.

As for the work prior to its defacement, here’s the best image I could find:

I think the lower right corner holds the too graphic graphics, and I hope that it’s fuzzy and indistinct enough so that you do not feel moved or obligated to destroy your own computer monitor in protest.

We all – or almost all of us  anyway – “deplore the violence and intolerance of this act,” and one might hope that the art market responds by raising the premium on Chagoya’s entire oeuvre, but Suffern blames the victim for the crime – writing as though the problem is insensitive artists who should have known better, not insensate fanatics, the vandal and those who incited her.

Suffern first suggests that, if artists like Chagoya considered “context,” they would either avoid such incidents by not producing offensive work, or would know they have nothing to complain about.  She jokingly  minimizes the act of vandalism as a “sort of performance art,” suggesting that it “re-enact[ed] Christ’s ‘turning over the tables’ scene – only with a crowbar.”  She maintains the same emphases – the irresponsible artist, the understandable art vigilante – when she turns to public policy (boldface and italics in the original):

[I]f taxpayers are forced to fund endeavors as subjective (to both artist and viewer, clearly) as art, does that not create a certain level of accountability on the part of the artist and/or local venue?  The opinions of renaissance art patrons held sway over artists’ creations, to a degree—should we, as modern-day “patrons,” not have recourse to deem a work of art offensive, or at least unwanted in the community gallery?  Excuse me, the community gallery we pay for. Artists should have complete freedom of expression on their own dime, or else be held accountable for the work they create if facilitated by our taxes.  This desire to be immune from controversy while still on the public payroll is patently absurd.

Presuming that Suffern is not in favor of critique by crowbar, it’s unclear how “accountability” is to be “created” under her concept, or what “recourse” we ought to be able to seek, other than in the more or less democratic process that leads to curators being empowered to provide space to artists including the likes of Professor Chagoya:  the status quo.

As for the supposed “desire to be immune from controversy while still on the public payroll,” Chagoya does not ask to be held “immune from controversy.”  He asks that his work be held immune from destruction.  Nor is he “on the public payroll”:  He is a professor at Stanford, a private institution, and he sells his work on the art market.  The gallery where his work was on exhibition is attached to a municipal museum in the city of Loveland, Colorado, while the woman who was arrested comes from Montana.  In other words, neither she nor Suffern nor most of the rest of “us” are in any sense his or the gallery’s “patron” or paymaster.

It’s even questionable whether Chagoya belongs at the center of this story.  Assuming that what he says about the imagery in question is true – as noted, we’re no longer in a good position to judge for ourselves – then the real blasphemers were those who falsely described the work in an incendiary manner: They were the ones who introduced the notion of divine fellatio into public discussion.  From my own experience of fervently devoted Christians of a certain type, I find it quite believable that manipulators and manipulated alike would draw this idea from their own minds.  Such images are a permanent part of Christian civilization: The dream of erotic union with the loving spirit made flesh, as a perfect man, is inevitable.

Teenagers have been snickering about “natural” permutations on the consummation of divine love, the “passion,” union with the God of love, etc., for thousands of years – and priests, ministers, deacons, televangelists, and countless cultists  have exploited the same connection – not that they could avoid it if they wanted to.  Christian devotion operates under the same imperative affecting other (a Freudian might say all) religious disciplines and doctrines:  to seek their proof and to derive their power in repression and sublimation of natural urges.  One typical result may be someone like 56-year-old Kathleen Folden, so lovingly attached to her personal internal image of the perfect man that she responds violently when someone seems to threaten it.  Something similar goes for other individuals and groups worldwide who have staked their manhood on the defense of other symbols.

Pressing the case for sympathizing with said 56-year-old, and with the conservative project of separating government from art promotion, Suffern turns for support to Pablo Picasso, truly an odd recruit for the Tea Party, first discussing his work, then quoting a statement of his from 1943:

Art is not made to decorate rooms. It is an offensive weapon in the defense against the enemy.

She closes with a question:

Perhaps the question we should be asking is:  Should such a weapon, whether virtuous or obscene, ever be in the government’s hands?

Since the more famous of the two Picasso paintings that Suffern mentions, Guernica, was executed on commission from the Spanish Republican (socialist) government, and since Picasso himself later joined the French Communist Party, I think we know how he would respond.  We know how he did respond in 1937, as on later occasions – by offering himself and his work to government to help government stand with him and on the side of art as he saw it:

My whole life as an artist has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art… When the [rightwing] rebellion began, the legally elected and democratic republican government of Spain appointed me director of the Prado Museum, a post which I immediately accepted. In the panel on which I am working which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death..

The “reaction” against which Picasso struggled continuously for his whole life obviously went far beyond the fascist “enemy” to whom he was specifically referring in Suffern’s quote.  It would include all of the forces of ignorance, barbarism, parochialism, petit bourgeois closed-mindedness, and social conformism  – generally the same forces that Suffern struggles to defend.

In Picasso’s fight, art and government may exploit each other, may or may not stand as allies.  If the results happen to scandalize, offend, or otherwise stimulate the woman Suffern identifies as “Betty Housewife in the American heartland,” that could be one way that an artist might address “context” successfully – by attacking it.  Then again, the artist may not spend even a moment thinking about it, and that might be just as well for all concerned, Betty included.  In any event, I strongly doubt that Picasso would have been interested in Betty Housewife or the art executed to massage her preconceptions, and I doubt he would be searching for excuses for a deranged Betty’s “performance art.”  Observing that the latter does not stand as an isolated incident, that it had informal sponsors and has attracted sympathizers, he would, I believe, be more likely to see it and the attempt to explain it away as contemptible – as enemy action.


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9 comments on “They don’t know how to love him

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  1. From what I gather from Loveland website, the gallery is a function of city govt, and they actively seeking to “promoting and enriching the quality of life by providing diverse cultural experiences through history, all forms of artistic expression and in community celebration.”

    So the offending exhibit seems to be within that “diverse cultural experience” thing.

    My guess is that they see it as an economic development strategy as much as anything else. So, vandalism is a problem, but if noteriety translates to hotel stays and restaurant meals, it’s all good.

  2. bob wrote:

    if noteriety translates to hotel stays and restaurant meals, it’s all good.

    maybe…until and unless the opposition escalates.

  3. @ CK MacLeod:

    Of course. My point is right wingnuts are the downside of the strategy. As with any downside (pollution, excessive nerd population) the issue is how to manage it.

    The Wiki article on it says:

    The Loveland-Ft Collins metropolitan area has received numerous awards as a great place to live, by Money Magazine, USA Today, AARP the Magazine, and others. There is a large population of artists in Loveland, which has drawn three foundries, an art museum, and the annual sculpture shows in August. Loveland has a reputation as being somewhat conservative in its politics, with a large and active population of Evangelical Christians.

    So what have here is a city with lots of ECs using the arts as an economic development strategy and then somebody gets upset. Good golly! how did that happen?

  4. Sorry I missed the action on this one. Great piece, CK. As you know, I always wanted you to be an art critique. In the hands of anyone else, given Picasso’s overexposure and his complex relationship to power, using him for perspective would have been big trouble. You did it masterfully. If it becomes topical again, I’d love to read what you’d write about the young woman who used blood from a series of her own calculated pregnancies and abortions to create what she referred to as art. And on a personal counter note, I went to a new art museum in my hometown on Thursday, ended up hearing an amazing SDA Gospel choir there and went to their church yesterday. So nice religious things still happen at art museums.

  5. Scott Miller wrote:

    I’d love to read what you’d write about the young woman who used blood from a series of her own calculated pregnancies and abortions to create what she referred to as art.

    I thought that turned out to be a hoax. No?

    The reference to the gospel choir reminds me that what I’ve been meaning to write about for some time is a post-theological syncretic reaction to the ecstatic positivity of religiously inspired art, music especially – like that Pakistani Sufi music video we were discussing a while back.

  6. @ CK MacLeod:
    The media ended up calling it a hoax. That’s when things got interesting. It was never really clear. The continued debate was interesting as it continued to highlight issues of individual vs institutional power and control. That’s why I thought it might be a good CK piece, but it’s too old for the blog. I know you would have written something outrageously funny about it, but I agree with your present inclination to write about p-t syncretic reactions to ecstatic positivity. You could have done some real-life research on that recently, but whatever.

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