It isn't pretty ... but is it art?

Few Americans wake up mornings contemplating the question of what makes a good work of art. But surprisingly enough, three belligerent public disputes have recently centered on this very question.

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani made headlines last month when he vowed to withhold municipal funding if the Brooklyn Museum of Art went through with its controversial British art exhibition, "Sensation." The major object of contention: an image of the Virgin Mary, her breast rendered in elephant dung.

Then, a few weeks later, parents in South Carolina, Georgia, and Minnesota protested the presence in public school classrooms of J.K. Rowling's bestselling Harry Potter series, one mother claiming this fantasy literature carried "a serious tone of death, hate ... and ... evil."

Finally, there was the public uproar in Seattle over the heavily bosomed and pregnant "Picardo Venus," a community garden statue many find too suggestive.

In each case, those objecting to the disbursement of public funds for the display of art they find offensive insist they are not for censorship. They claim they merely want publicly funded and publicly presented artwork to reflect community standards of taste, decency, and respect for religious faith. All well and good; but who is to define those standards? Chris Ofili, painter of the "Sensation" exhibition's much maligned "Holy Virgin Mary," claims that Mr. Giuliani falsely assigned deprecatory motives to his work. He is not out to desecrate the image of the Virgin Mary, he says.

Rather, he's a Roman Catholic earnestly coming to terms with his faith, his African heritage, and a long Western tradition of representing the Madonna.

Similarly, J.K. Rowling might claim that the Harry Potter books also stand in a long "pre-apologetic" literary tradition: Yes, they deal with magic and witchcraft. Their tone is dark. But no less a devout Christian than C.S. Lewis understood the power of pagan imagery in preparing the young imagination for the moral rigors and spiritual comforts of biblical religion. Indeed, if there is something wrong with a "tone of death" in children's literature, then we might as well jettison all our volumes of fairy tales. For these distilled popular narratives exert their charm and power precisely, as Bruno Bettelheim pointed out, because they allow children a reality-removed way to confront the "existential predicament."

And what of the "Picardo Venus"? Must she be rejected, as one citizen-critic contended, because she "glorifies fertility a little too much for kids," or because, as another said, "no normal woman looks like that?"

Do "normal" women look like Picasso painted them? Or Rubens? Did not Botticelli's immortal "The Birth of Venus" also glorify fertility? The point is that almost all the arguments we bring against public support of controversial new works are at best specious, at worst manifestly wrongheaded. Informed aesthetic judgments seem to elude us.

Faced with creative works that seem to us alien and unappealing, we are forced to fall back on that proverbial disclaimer, "I don't know much about it ... I only know what I like."

Just because an artwork doesn't make us feel warm and fuzzy doesn't mean it's worthless. The Seattle man who protests against the "Picardo Venus" on the basis that "art is supposed to evoke all these good feelings" is wrong. Good art is not necessarily pleasing. It is, however, disciplined. It is about mastery of medium, form, and style. And good art must communicate something comprehensibly worthwhile, something worthy of contemplation. And here we get closer to the aesthetic problem facing the American public today. More and more so-called artists today call attention to themselves by shocking and agitating rather than by promoting reflection. In reaction to these salvos, the public has come to anticipate offense.

How do we move past the disturbing impasse of public contention over art and toward a healthier, more vital cultural life? One answer is to be guided in our aesthetic judgments by three important principles:

*Art doesn't do. It says. Art is not action; it is speculation. It is looking, listening, digesting, speaking. Art can make a controversial statement; but it cannot do controversial things. If the primary effect of a so-called artwork is physical repulsion or titillation, if it acts on us rather than speaks to us, it is simply not up to the standards of art. If it makes us think, however, we should take up the challenge.

*Art is about content, not context. Art is the schematic arrangement of forms and symbols through specific, culturally recognized mediums. If we exhibit, say, a cow's embryo in an art museum, it does not suddenly become a work of visual art simply by virtue of its surroundings.

Similarly, if we hung a print of Titian's "Woman on a Couch" in a biology lab, it would scarcely transform that painting into a science display. We need to be open to the possibilities of the creative process; yet, we must recognize that not everything offered up in the artistic arena is art.

*The greater the knowledge, the sounder the judgment. When we venture onto the battlefield of the culture wars, we owe it to our artists and ourselves to come armed with knowledge. In a multicultural society such as America's, that means making the attempt to familiarize ourselves with the major artistic traditions of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Before we criticize, we need first to understand. Indeed, there is nothing more inspiring to good artists than a public that can be communicated with on the highest and most subtle levels of creativity and skill.

* Dana Mack, an affiliate scholar at the New York-based Institute for American Values, is the author of 'The Assault on Parenthood' (Simon & Schuster 1997).

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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