Abu Ghraib Painting Provokes Violence


In America we tend to honor art more in theory than in fact. It is, we think, a fine-sounding idea, but faced with the reality we usually turn to the NASCAR channel and pop a beer. We like art that’s distant from our own reality, either geographically or temporally–‘100 years and 1000 miles away’ is more or less our rule of thumb for ‘acceptable’ art. The term ‘contemporary art’, on the other hand, seems to carry an image of combined difficulty and insult. While we don’t seem to be able to fathom how it could be that van Gogh only sold a single painting in his lifetime, we think Robert Mapplethorpe should be strung up by the heels and drawn-and-quartered for daring to print ‘lewd’ images and De Kooning should have been put in a Rest Home with bars on the windows and guards on the doors because he was obviously ‘crazy’.

Occasionally, though we generally ignore most art no matter where it came from or how old it is, some piece of work comes along that really gets our juices flowing, either in a good way–as in the response to the Assassins revival–or in a bad, as in this little episode in San Francisco:

The furor began on May 16 when Colwell, an East Bay artist, made an addition to his monthlong showing at Haigh’s gallery on Powell Street. Angered by the pictures he saw of Iraqi prisoners being abused, he created a black and white painting depicting three hooded and naked men undergoing electric shock torture by American soldiers. Colwell, who took down his paintings Saturday, declined to comment.Two days after the painting went up, Haigh arrived at her gallery to find broken glass, eggs and trash strewn outside her storefront. Haigh also began receiving the first of about 200 angry voicemails, e-mails and death threats.

A week ago, a man walked into the gallery and spit in Haigh’s face. On Tuesday, Haigh decided to temporarily close the gallery and began to consider giving up on her dream of owning an art gallery. Just two days later, another man knocked on the door of the gallery and then punched Haigh in the face, knocking her out, breaking her nose and causing a concussion.

Art critics.

That this is deplorable goes without saying. That it was likely Freepers or their sympathizers is a good bet (SF is a main Freeper stomping ground). That’s it’s symptomatic of a deep American..well, let’s be kind and call it ‘ambivalence’..toward art in general and contemporary art in particular and political art most especially is a reasonable conclusion given the ease with which Jesse Helms cut the NEA budget and the extraordinary difficulty arts organizations in this country have just surviving. What is surprising, in a way, is that a painting hanging in an obscure gallery could cause such a furor in this age of LCD ‘culture’.

Maybe that’s a good sign, along with Avenue Q‘s Tony win as Best Musical. If a political painting can get a gallery owner beaten up and an adult puppet show with scathing political satire can win a pretigious award, then maybe art isn’t as dead in America as everybody thought. (Assassins won, too–in every category for which it was nominated.) Poor Lori, who thought it would be fun to run an art gallery, didn’t know how dangerous art can be to your health. She, like the rest of us, was used to art being considered a harmless diversion for the 5% of the population that *wrinkling their nose* ‘likes that sort of thing’.

I’m sorry Lori had to pay the price for my learning but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that somewhere deep inside me there was an ecstatic chill I haven’t felt in a long time:

YES! Art still has POWER!

How could I have doubted it?

(Thanks to Charles Dodgson at Through the Looking Glass for the tip)

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