Austin, Texas... Politex's for ART

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"Speaking of baring it all, artist Ed Paschke hints that he will be arriving naked to the May 20 opening of "Bush and Gore 2000," the erotic art show that will run through June 25 at the Jettsett Gallery, 3350 N. Paulina St. Gallery owner Jeannett Walczak will showcase erotic paintings, sculptures and photographs from numerous Chicago artists." --Chicago Tribune, 5/9/00


"It is a considerable compliment to have one's book, 'Slouching Towards Gomorrah,' cited, even disparagingly, by a presidential contender whose proud boast it is that he does not read books. (He may not even have realized that he was referring to a book.) But George W. Bush knows people who do read books (just as he bragged that he may not know where East Timor is, but he knows people who do know). Some of them even write his speeches for him. Bill Bennett, displaying a new-found optimism about the direction of American culture, mentioned that he was one. A Rolodex is a wonderful substitute for actual knowledge.... Mr. Bush evidently thinks conservatives are another species altogether. He has tried to take back his words by saying he really meant that the problem is not with Republicans, but with the way they are heard by the public. An unnamed adviser gave that game away by explaining, 'After you hit a dog, you pet it.' The initial reaction of conservatives suggests that Mr. Bush miscalculated: Conservatives are not gazing up at him with warm, wet eyes, eager to be scratched behind the ears."--conservative author Robert Bork in a recent Wall Street Journal response to a speech by Dubya


Time after time since Dubya began his national travels in June, Bush has refused to get involved in local controversies. His mantra has been, "It's up to the states," be it flying the Stars and Bars over the South Carolina capitol or using anti-evolution textbooks in Kansas. Yet, in New York earlier this week Bush had no compunction about taking a stand on the Virgin Mary painting on show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, calling it "using public monies to denigrate religion." He reached that conclusion based on something he read. At an 8am breakfast at the New York Sheraton last Wednesday, Bush met with Conservative Party head Mike Long and 25 party leaders and asked for their backing. He told them he was different than Mayor Giuliana "because I'm philosophically more comfortable with you." The following will provide a sense of Bush's connections to the conservative politics involved in the recent art flap and suggest why he said what he said about the painting.--Politex

NYC Mayor Giuliani's "only interest in NYC from now to the 2000 Senate election is in nailing down a hardcore minority of its voters, exceeding the 30 percent most statewide GOP candidates get. His laser-beam focus is on a state whose electorate is at least 44 percent Catholic, according to exit polls conducted in 1998 by the Voter News Service. As transparent as is his rhetorical reach for the hinterlands, Giuliani is also playing to a local audience of one: Conservative Party boss Mike Long, the super-Catholic father of nine who controls a ballot line without which no Republican has won statewide in a quarter of a century. An ex-marine who rules his party from a Bay Ridge foxhole a few miles from the museum, Long told the Voice: 'Of course, his actions enhance his pluses with Conservative Party voters. What he did was correct.'

Long, whose party has refused to endorse Giuliani in all three of his mayoral races...has already publicly set a high standard for his party's endorsement of Giuliani: the mayor must move away from his announced support of what Long emphatically calls 'partial birth abortion.' If Giuliani thinks the raw meat he's tossed the rabid in the museum fracas will take him off the spot on an abortion position Long says Giuliani shares with only 'a handful of elected Republicans' across the country, the party leader says Giuliani has another thought coming. ...Giuliani, on the other hand, seems to believe his rant over an elephant-dunged Mary will give Long the ideological camouflage to deliver the ballot line without the necessity of an abortion switch. From City Hall's cynical vantage point, a super-Catholic pose on a symbol is far better than a vote-costing conversion on substance, though Giuliani may ultimately have to do both.

...Giuliani's championing of school vouchers— most of which would be used to buy desks in religious schools— flies in the face of his museum rhetoric about the right of taxpayers not to subsidize what they don't approve....The best evidence of Giuliani's current crass political agenda is his posture in prior similiar circumstances. He remained stone silent in 1996 when his eventual Democratic opponent, Ruth Messinger, went public with a letter to a Manhattan public access channel protesting a show that featured two men having sex on a Bible. City Hall is directly involved in cable franchise and public access channel decisions. His NYPD facilitated the 1998 showing of Corpus Christi, a play about a gay Christ who has offstage sex with his apostles, when threats temporarily stymied its staging at a publicly subsidized theater.

The administration's funding of the Gay Men's Health Crisis was unaffected by deaths at its well-publicized annual drug orgy on Fire Island, and he never misses a Gay Pride Parade, even though it features what the Post calls 'grotesque mockery of the pope, cardinal and church.' It's only now, when term limits and Hillary Clinton have changed his constituency, that Giuliani has become a public censor. The museum defunding, just like his attempted voucher funding, is part of a 1999 rush of Giuliani reversals designed to reposition him for the Senate."--Wayne Barrett


POLITEX: "CULTURALLY ADRIFT" DUBYA WOULD REPRESENT MENCKEN'S BOOBOISIE IN WHITE HOUSE. Last week in a van on the way out of Washington, W. confided to Maureen Dowd that he is "culturally adrift." (NYT 10/3/99) He said that his idea of a cultural event is watching a baseball game. He likes his music in the background and has little interest in movies. Opera is not a consideration, he's seen one ballet in his life, and his reported theatrical experience was "Cats." He doesn't play an instrument and he doesn't dance. If he were to become President he says he would have an aide plan White House cultural events. Although the conversation was about his cultural interests, he said nothing about visiting art museums. Yet, even though he's never seen the painting nor a photo of it, Bush took a clear position this week on the value of Charles Offli's "The Holy Virgin Mary," the most controversial work on display at the Brooklyn Museum as part of the "Sensation" show: ""From what I've read, the exhibit besmirches religion. It denigrates someone's religion. I don't think we ought to be using public monies to denigrate religion." (AP, 10/4/99)

Bush didn't say what he read or how the painting denigrates someone's religion, but Governor Pataki, who was accompanying the Texas governor on his two-day money gathering trip to New York state, agreed: ""That's right. When you use public money to denigrate someone's religion, I think it's wrong." Pataki didn't explain his remarks, either. Earlier, on Sunday's "This Week" (ABC), NYC Mayor Giuliani placed himself in the middle of the "firestorm," since the museum is charging admission to the show and he, as Mayor, must approve the closing of the city-owned building to non-paying citizens. He has decided belatedly not to approve the request, and the museum then filed a suit to continue to keep the show open. Giuliani described the painting as incorporating "excrement....[and] the private parts of women... which is, you know, kind of ... an aggressive attack on religion." Other remarks by the Mayor about the show as a whole suggest that he, like Bush and Pataki, has never seen the painting under question: "There are — I think there are pigs in formaldehyde that are dissected. There’s a — displays of other things involving crimes of violence." Even though a "Daily News" poll has only 30% of New Yorkers upholding Giuliani's position, there's little doubt that Offli's Virgin Mary has stirred up charges of Catholic bashing. However, Cokie Roberts informed Giuliani that a majority of Catholics "disagree with you in New York...[and] several prominent Catholics have supported the right of the Museum to do this."

An obvious question has been lost in the give and take of political posturing: what's the opinion of someone, not a politician or a media maven, who has seen the painting? "As to Chris Ofili of Holy Virgin Mary fame, I think he's a solid painter," opines Slate's Deborah Solomon. "Ofili is a black Roman Catholic, and to my mind the picture represents an earnest attempt to appropriate the Virgin for black culture. I have no problem with elephant dung (which is just chewed up grass anyway), and I'd guess the reason the painting set off such a furor is that it depicts a black Virgin Mary. I think Giuliani freaked out when he saw a Virgin Mary who wasn't white. I mean, it's probably not a coincidence that the mayor decided to single out (and all but lynch) the most prominent black artist of his generation. That's a shame, especially since the Brooklyn Museum of Art is the only major art museum in New York that serves a racially diverse community...I do not think that his inclusion of porn cutouts in the painting brands him as a rude provocateur. Remember, the Virgin Mary may be a timeless symbol, but she is also a flesh-and-blood woman, and Ofili is hardly the first artist to eroticize the Virgin. It's been going on at least since the Renaissance."

Another question that comes to mind is what do we know about the painter that would help to put his Virgin Mary in context? About the elephant dung, it turns out that Chris Ofili includes it in every painting he does. "It was in Zimbabwe that Ofili experienced what some might call a moment of clarity," according to the show's program notes. "Struck by the limits of his paintings, and in an effort to ground them physically in a cultural as well as natural landscape, he hit upon the idea of sticking elephant dung onto them." As Ofili, himself, puts it: "The paintings themselves are very delicate abstractions, and I wanted to bring their beauty and decorativeness together with the ugliness of shit and make them exist in a twilight zone – you know they're there together, but you can't really ever feel comfortable with it." With respect to the cut-outs of female buttocks, those, too, may have a different culural meaning for Brit-born Ofill in the context of African symbolism. It appears, then, that the dung as well as the porn cut-outs are one person's response to an appropriated icon as filtered through various cultures, his religion, and his personal sensibilities. It's not difficult to understand how a politician like Dubya who considers a baseball game as the high point of his cultural existence and music only as something pleasant to have in the background would find Ofili's painting political fair game, but what does this tell us about the cultural tone that would be set and the support that would given to the arts under a Bush presidency? 10/6/99


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