Wednesday, June 4, 2003

Maybe both

Is that art or a joke?


My favorite Cincinnati joke is the one about two sheriff's deputies standing at the Mapplethorpe exhibit back in 1989 at the old Contemporary Arts Center. The first one asks, "So, whaddya think? Is that art?''

The second thinks awhile, then replies: "I dunno. I've never seen Art with his clothes off.''

Now Cincinnati has a new $35 million arts center - the Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art - and the taxpayers who contributed $10 million to build it were thanked with another poke in the eye. On opening night, a Chinese performance artist in a police uniform, with a Doberman on a leash, walked on an American flag.

Was it art - or just a bad joke?

Naked emotions

"Performance art can trigger a wide range of emotions,'' assistant curator Matthew Distel explained. "Some is deliberately provocative to stimulate conversation and thinking.''

It stimulated me to think some nitwit deliberately insulted our nation and our city and the soldiers and cops who protect the rights of artists who perpetrate imbecilities in the name of free expression.

Distel said the "flag desecration issue'' was discussed with artist Zhang Huan before Saturday's opening-night performance. But, "I don't think he would have understood that as a gesture of disrespect.''

I guess that makes us even. Huan doesn't understand America, and most Americans don't understand contemporary art.

I admit I am clueless. But from what I gathered, it has a lot to do with pictures of naked people.

During my tour of the empty museum on Monday, I saw some pretty weird stuff that pretends to be "art". And it did make me think: Gee, if I hang a disco ball from the ceiling and call it art, will some "ahrts'' patron with ocean-deep pockets and a wading-pool mind buy it?

Meat the artist

What about that "artist'' who creates "schizophrenic'' pictures of someone cooking and eating human body parts? Shouldn't someone introduce him to the Chinese artist dressed in a "suit'' of raw pot roasts? Wouldn't that be "performance art?"

How about those plywood tepees with portholes and artificial turf?

Is that art?

"That's the right question to ask,'' said deputy director Andree Bober. "We're here to provide a forum to ask, 'What is art?' We're not here to provide the answers.''

And that made me think: That's a cool idea.

From one angle, the new arts center looks like a children's museum for demented adults only. From another, it looks like a hole in the fence where we can slip through occasionally to test the boundaries of our freedom of expression.

I'm in favor of that.

But gratuitously insulting the taxpayers who paid for it is still stupid.

So here's a new joke:

Two cops are standing at the Rosenthal center on opening night, watching a Chinese guy walking his dog on an American flag. The first one says, "Whaddya think. Is that art?''

The second one says, "No. It looks more like felony fraud by some bonehead impersonating an artist.''

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