Art Among the Philistines–A Controversy in Broward County

Art Among the Philistines–A Controversy in Broward County

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
June 3, 2005

Complaints about an explicit piece of art displayed as part of a tax-supported exhibition roiled Broward County, Florida in recent days. The art piece, known as “Yahoo!,” is a painting that graphically depicts President George W. Bush being sodomized. The painting also featured images of an oil barrel and a man in a Muslim headdress. The artist, Alfred Phillips, told the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel that his painting has something to do with “a political statement about the United States being abused by oil companies.”
The painting was featured as part of “Controversy,” an exhibit located at the Broward Art Guild, a non-profit organization. The exhibition was funded in part by a grant from the Broward County Department of Cultural Affairs. Once a complaint had been received, the Guild’s director received a call from Mary Becht, director of the county department. Subsequently, the painting was moved to another, less visible, location within the Broward Art Guild’s facility.
Inevitably, the relocation of the painting and the call from the county administrator led to cries of oppression and censorship. Broward County Vice Mayor Ben Graber defended the exhibit, pointing to the fact that the gallery had posted a notice warning of controversial displays. “If there’s a warning at the door, the county should not be involved,” he said. “I respect freedom of speech regardless of the issue. It’s obviously a political message. I can’t see why one should be allowed and not the other. Everyone should have the opportunity.” County officials promised an “internal discussion” about the Mary Becht’s decision to contact the Broward Art Guild about the painting. In any event, Vice Mayor Graber’s comments are worth closer attention.
Why would Broward County put tax dollars behind such an exhibition in the first place? According to the Sun-Sentinel, other pieces displayed in the program include a painting that depicts President Bush dressed as the Statue of Liberty while holding a tablet marked by a swastika, and a piece that portrayed Pope Benedict XVI surrounded by a backdrop of swastikas. Clearly, swastikas are “in” among protest artists.
Leo Tolstoy once remarked that art “is a human activity which has as its purpose the transmission to others of the highest and best feelings to which men have risen.” By any standard of aesthetic virtue, the “Controversy” exhibit fails in all counts. In the name of political protest, these “artists” aim for the lowest and basest elements of the human imagination. Much of the modern art world is simply devoid of artistic standards, and political correctness is often more powerful than aesthetic considerations. The artist is now to be an agent of political protest and ideological liberation. A painting depicting politicized sodomy is sure to find admirers in the morally confused world of postmodern art.
This particular controversy does have an ironic angle, however. The complaint to the County Department of Cultural Affairs came, not from the general public, but from one of the other artists whose work is featured in the exhibition. Michael Friedman, the artist who complained, is the man who painted the work featuring the Pope and the swastikas.
“Something snapped inside” when he saw the Phillips painting, Friedman recalled. “Sodomy in a public forum is not, from my perspective, considered art,” he said. “I think somebody has to draw the line somewhere. I like political satire. However, that kind of image . . . I don’t think is artistic.” So, the artist who depicted the Pope with swastikas complained about the artist who painted the President being sodomized. Confused?
Welcome to the world of postmodern art. Representation and realism are out, while pornography and vulgarism are in. The Broward County controversy is only one small front in the war over artistic standards. At present, cultural Philistines seem to control the debate–and most of the galleries. Friedman is right about one thing–“somebody has to draw the line somewhere.”

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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