Recent headlines tell of shock art and protests from well-intentioned decency fans. Some of today's artists use blood, urine, and other body products in their creations.
Whether it's a Madonna decorated with elephant dung as painted by Chris Ofili or African-American woman photographer Renee Cox's self-portrait as Jesus in "Yo Mama's Last Supper," art poses constant questions about what is acceptable viewing, and what is really art.
Cynthia Freeland, a University of Houston philosophy professor, offers her thoughts on some of the key problems in a new book, "But Is It Art?" (Oxford University Press, $16.95).
Freeland's lively and readable take has garnered praise from art criticism gurus like Columbia University's Arthur C. Danto, who says, "I know of no work that moves so swiftly and with so sure a footing through the battle zones of art and society today."
As an expert in an area full of explosive shocks, Freeland remains perky and enthused. Do artists use objectionable materials in their works merely to shock, or do they have something else on their minds?
When coming to terms with the repugnant in modern art, she says, it's useful to remember that " 'monstrous art' is a label that applies to some of our civilization's greatest works, like 'The Bacchae' and 'King Lear.' There's some really gross stuff in those plays! Monstrous art goes beyond the natural realm into deeply mysterious areas; it shows us things about evil, suffering, and cruelty that aren't cheery to confront or easy to control."
Such "monstrous art" is a way of reacting against abstract art, or postmodern "recycled images," she says. Artists "started looking for more vivid ways of getting in touch with real bodies and real emotions," she says. And "larger numbers of minority artists reflect different art-making traditions. Andres Serrano and Chris Ofili have drawn on non-Western, non-WASP traditions of symbolic totem objects, relics, and fetishes."
Serrano is the photographer of a notorious 1987 five-by-three-foot image showing a crucifix immersed in the artist's urine, or, as Freeland describes it: "The crucifix looks large and mysterious, bathed in golden fluid." His work sparked the ire of Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, who said, "[Serrano] is not an artist, he is a jerk."
But instead of assuming that Serrano is insulting or degrading Jesus, Freeland says, viewers might find a number of more constructive social comments being made. To her, the work might mean that Jesus is suffering still, but in some new ways, by his image being degraded and dragged through filth. Or maybe that "faith and belief can turn [human] dross into gold."
Adds Freeland: "In art history, there has always been work that's disturbing and alludes to violence and horror; some images of Christ that are iconic and accepted now were considered disgusting in their own day, like Caravaggio's dead Christ, who looked too dead.
"In the sort of Methodist atmosphere I was brought up in as a child, any image of a crucifix was unusual and even a bit shocking. Methodists just didn't show Christ on the cross in a place of worship."
She likens Serrano to the 18th-century Spanish master Francisco Goya, who created work that is "ugly and disturbing, with a shatteringly negative moral content," but which is nevertheless great art."
Even modern British artist Damien Hirst, whose sliced-up animals preserved in formaldehyde under plexiglass have revolted gallery-goers, receives qualified praise from Freeland: "They are good art - some of them. They are symbolically powerful, elegantly crafted, and visually arresting."
To decide what is art and what is not, New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani set up a decency panel.
"I don't think it will be effective," Freeland says. "People can find good art indecent - as happened recently with a replica of Michelangelo's 'David' in Florida, which had to be clothed with a thong. If you try to placate everyone, not much will get by...."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor