By Editorial Staff
Published March 1, 1993
By Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington
Author of Picasso: Creator and Destroyer
In the fall of 1989, 14 photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe were sold at auction at Christie’s for $129,690. In the same week, 23 Mapplethorpe photographs were sold at auction at Sotheby’s for $396,275. Art dealers were furiously bidding against each other for photographs of leather-clad men and cropped close-ups of an “obscene” nature. Once more, hype is confused with art in the “bazaar of the bizarre” that our culture has become.
At the height of the controversy surrounding Mapplethorpe’s photographs, the Whitney museum took a full-page ad in the New York Times to protest the cancellation of a Mapplethorpe show by the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. “ARE YOU GOING TO LET POLITICS KILL ART?” the ad asked in block letters. A Mapplethorpe photograph of a tulip was used for illustration.
Of course, the trustees of the Whitney knew as well as the rest of us that Mapplethorpe’s fame and his one-man shows at the Whitney and other venerable institutions around the country were not based on his photographs of flowers. But the trustees also knew that the ad would have been self-defeating in terms of garnering public support if it were illustrated by one of Mapplethorpe’s photographs celebrating sadomasochism, which Mapplethorpe, in a farewell interview before he died of AIDS, described as sex and magic.
Yet is was precisely these photographs of torture and degradation that put Robert Mapplethorpe on the map, otherwise known as “the cutting edge” of art – what our culture decides is worth exhibiting, reviewing and talking about. If art is in danger of being killed, as the Whitney ad implies, it is our culture, not politics, that is the culprit. In fact, Congress is not the right forum for the particular debate. The larger issue is not what art is supported by public funds, but what art is encouraged and rewarded by our culture.
At the moment, art that deals with rage, violence, disgust and brutality rises to the top. The message from the art world is clear: life is rotten, human beings are rotten, love is rotten, society is rotten. Art that may show the darkness but also gives us a glimpse of the light beyond is seen as too “soft,” too unrealistic.
What Tom Wolfe said in The Painted Word is even more valid today: “If a work or a new style disturbed you, it was probably good work. If you hated it, it was probably great … To be against what is new is not to be modern. Not to be modern is to write yourself out of the scene. Not to be in the scene is to be nowhere.” As a result, the art world has for years not been stuck in the very modern and very adolescent stage of rebellion.
There is another world – of light, spirit, harmony and truth that seems foreign to our contemporary culture. Schumann said in the 19th century, “To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts – such is the duty of the artist.” He would be hard to put to find many such artist thriving today.
In all the huffing and puffing and booming of art that celebrates darkness and inhumanity the same note is struck; how powerful the work, how exquisite the technique! The fact that adding elegance to brutality only helps to desensitize us to its reality is glossed over. And our response has nothing to do with defending our civil rights and a lot to do with losing our capacity to be shocked.
There have been great photographers who have captured strong images of violence and cruelty intending to shock us, often to shock us into action – such as Jacob Riis with his pictures of children working in coal mines.
But when we detach ourselves from the brutality and admire the technique, we are conceding that human beings are inert things to whom you can do anything, sometimes in the name of art, sometimes in the name of sexual kicks, sometimes in the name of the state. It is a concession we cannot afford to make – the first step on the road to Auschwitz and the Gulag Archipelago.
Discussing the arts controversy on “Phil Donahue” two years ago, I told Tim Rollins, a young artist on the panel who works in the South Bronx helping children transmute violence into art, that Robert Mapplethorpe might have benefited greatly from working with him. He replied that Mapplethorpe’s violence was between consenting adults. I asked him if he also thought that the consent of his followers in Jonestown exonerated the Rev. Jim Jones.
“Jim Jones,” he answered, “was not an artist.” This is a succinct expression of the feeling prevalent in our culture that there is one moral standard for ordinary mortals and another for artists.
“Just pronounce the magic word ‘art’ and everything is OK,” wrote George Orwell 45 years ago in an essay on Salvador Dali. “So long as you can paint well enough to pass the test, all shall be forgiven you.” And then he made the ultimate pronouncement not only on Dali but on the whole debate on art and morality:
“One ought to be bale to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draftsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate, or, in a sense, affect the other. The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is inseparable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp. In the same way it should be possible to say, ‘This is a good book or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.’ Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human being.”
Our culture would do well to take Orwell’s words to heart. The rest of us have a duty to distinguish constantly between the true and the false. And perhaps to follow the example of the small boy in the fairy tale who had the courage to cry out that the emperor wore no clothes.
Our secular culture is finding it increasingly hard to satisfy on a purely aesthetic diet the spiritual instinct in us that longs for a larger meaning. With an almost pathetic desperation, we overestimate the significance of everything “artistic,” including Andy Warhol’s cookie jars, with ever-diminishing emotional returns. But aestheticism – the notion that all of existence can be sanctified as an aesthetic phenomenon – is exhausted. Its champions, still dominating the art world while fighting off a nasty case of existential dread, have failed to recognize that it is the connection between the aesthetic and the ethical that gives art its dignity, its meaning, and its power. It is not an explicit socio-realistic connection made by the artist, but a connection made within ourselves when art pierces through all the crusts of our narrow interests and preoccupations and liberates the truth and the vision of wholeness we carry with us.
Reprinted by permission of IMPRIMIS, the monthly journal of Hillsdale College. Subscription free upon request: IMPRIMIS, Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, MI 49242.
Forerunner - Home » The Forerunner Newspaper » Arts and Media
Your comments are welcome!
Download the Free Study Guide!
God’s Law and Society powerfully presents a comprehensive worldview based upon the ethical system found in the Law of God.
Speakers include: R.J. Rushdoony, George Grant, Howard Phillips, R.C. Sproul Jr., Ken Gentry, Gary DeMar, Jay Grimstead, Steven Schlissel, Andrew Sandlin, Eric Holmberg, and more!
Sixteen Christian leaders and scholars answer some of the most common questions and misconceptions related to this volatile issue:
1. Are we under Law or under Grace?
2. Does the Old Testament Law apply today?
3. Can we legislate morality?
4. What are the biblical foundations of government?
5. Was America founded as a Christian nation?
6. What about the separation of Church and State?
7. Is neutrality a myth?
8. What about non-Christians and the Law of God?
9. Would there be “freedom” in a Christian republic?
10. What would a “Christian America” look like?
Perfect for group instruction as well as personal Bible study.
Ten parts, over four hours of instruction!
Running Time: 240 minutes
Watch over 60 on-line video interviews from God’s Law and Society.
$19.95 — ORDER NOW!(We accept all major credit cards and PayPal.)
That Swiss Hermit Strikes Again!
Dr. Schaeffer, who was one of the most influential Christian thinkers in the twentieth century, shows that secular humanism has displaced the Judeo-Christian consensus that once defined our nation’s moral boundaries. Law, education, and medicine have all been reshaped for the worse as a consequence. America’s dominant worldview changed, Schaeffer charges, when Christians weren’t looking.
Schaeffer lists two reasons for evangelical indifference: a false concept of spirituality and fear. He calls on believers to stand against the tyranny and moral chaos that come when humanism reigns-and warns that believers may, at some point, be forced to make the hard choice between obeying God or Caesar. A Christian Manifesto is a thought-provoking and bracing Christian analysis of American culture and the obligation Christians have to engage the culture with the claims of Christ.
$19.95 — ORDER NOW!(We accept all major credit cards and PayPal.)
Special Two-Disc Set!
After 40 years of intense study and world-wide ministry, Dr. Francis Schaeffer completed his crowning work of scholarship – to present profound truths in simple film language. Dr. Schaeffer’s brilliant analysis of the past and predictions for current trends have proven so uncannily accurate that this amazing series still feels contemporary almost three decades after its initial release. Ultimately, Schaeffer concludes that man’s only hope is a return to God’s Biblical absolute, the truth revealed in Christ through the Scriptures.
Available for the first time on DVD, this documentary spectacular also includes intimate in-depth conversations with Francis and Edith Schaeffer. With the on-disc study guide, this presentation forms a unique course of comprehensive study. While this series forms an innovative analysis of the past, this outstanding work is more than history. Each episode focuses on a significant era, yet speaks clearly to 21st-century man with answers for modern problems.
$49.95 — ORDER NOW!(We accept all major credit cards and PayPal.)
Foundations in Biblical Eschatology
By Jay Rogers, Larry Waugh, Rodney Stortz, Joseph Meiring. High quality paperback, 167 pages.
All Christians believe that their great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will one day return. Although we cannot know the exact time of His return, what exactly did Jesus mean when he spoke of the signs of His coming (Mat. 24)? How are we to interpret the prophecies in Isaiah regarding the time when “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:19)? Should we expect a time of great tribulation and apostasy or revival and reformation before the Lord returns? Is the devil bound now, and are the saints reigning with Christ? Did you know that there are four hermeneutical approaches to the book of Daniel and Revelation?
These and many more questions are dealt with by four authors as they present the four views on the millennium. Each view is then critiqued by the other three authors.
$12.95 — ORDER NOW!(We accept all major credit cards and PayPal.)
Exposes the Dangers of Abortion to Women!
These shocking eyewitness accounts expose the dangers of abortion not only to unborn children, but to the health and lives women as well. An antidote to the smokescreens of the liberal media, these short clips show what really happens in and around abortion clinics.
Although the content is emotionally gut-wrenching, these videos have been used in church seminars and small groups to educate Christians on the abortion issue and to lead people toward a pro-life position. Contains 2 hours and 40 minutes of materials that can be shown separately.
Watch these pro-life videos on-line.
“These videos helped change my mind from pro-choice to pro-life. Your videos are what did it for me. I will be walking in next year’s March For Life in San Francisco.” — A. Jackson, California
“I was going to have an abortion until I saw your video. Praise Jesus!”
— M. Drew, YouTube Commenter
$4.95 — ORDER NOW!(We accept all major credit cards and PayPal.)