The Magazine

The Mayor, the Museum, and the Madonna

Pseudo-courageous blasphemous art

Oct 11, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 04 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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The role of the artist has changed radically in the last century and a half. It was once the function of the artist to represent beauty and transcendence and possibly introduce it into the life of the beholder. With the advent of photography and film, the perfect media for both representation and narration, art has fought its dread of obsolescence by seeking some other role.

Today the function of the artist is to be an emissary to the aberrant: to live at the cultural and social extremes, to go over into the decadent and even criminal, to scout forbidden emotional and psychic territory -- and bring back artifacts of that "edgy" experience to a bourgeoisie too cozy and cowardly to make the trip itself.

This has been going on for decades. It must be said, however, that at the beginning of the transformation there was an expectation that the artist would bring skill and a sense of craft to his work. Whether their conceit was dandyism, criminality, or sexual adventurism (free love, homosexuality, and the other once shocking taboos of yesterday), artists of the early modern period still felt a need to render their recreation of shock with style and technique.

Having reached a time, however, when technique itself is considered revisionist, anticreative, and, of course, bourgeois, all we are left with is the raw stinking shock. On display, right now, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

It is important to note that the artists and promoters who provoked the great Brooklyn contretemps are not feigning their surprise at Giuliani's counterattack. They genuinely feel entitled to their subsidy. They genuinely feel they perform a unique and priceless service, introducing vicarious extremism into the utterly compromised lives of their bourgeois patrons.

Ah, but every once in a while a burgher arises and says to the artist: No need to report back from the edge. You can stay where you are. We'll have our afternoon tea without acid, thank you.

And then the fun begins.

Charles Krauthammer is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.