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Road kill and stone tablets

Culture | If art should be offensive, why object to a Decalogue monument?

Issue: "Bush wins one," June 9, 2001

A raccoon that had been run over by a car. A deer skull. Turkey feathers. A dead crow. Put them all together and you have a work of art.

Ben Jennings, an art major at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County, created his masterpiece by cruising for road kill on Highway 29 in rural Wisconsin. He assembled his materials in a glass box and displayed the work in the college's exhibit room.

His purpose was to create what he called "dynamic art," a sculpture that would change without the help of the artist. The appearance of the carcasses would change every day as they rotted.

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But then the objet d'art started to stink. Although, presumably, the sense of smell could be considered part of the work's sensory aesthetic, the stench got really, really bad. It became too much for the gallery-goers, however sophisticated they were when it came to contemporary art. The odor could not be contained within the exhibit space, and it wafted down the halls into the rest of the building. The aroma of the rotting road kill threatened to disrupt a big end-of-the-year awards ceremony.

Finally, the dean stepped in and told Mr. Jennings and the Art Department to just throw the thing away. "I was kind of flattered that I had to remove it," said the artist. "The reaction is the best part of it, even if it's negative."

Mr. Jennings may be only a college student in the hinterlands right now, but he may have a great career ahead of him in the arts establishment. Look at artistic superstar Damien Hurst who carves up not only dead animals but human cadavers. Having scorned the notion of "Beauty," artists are experimenting with creating works of calculated ugliness. Instead of trying to create an aesthetic response, they are trying to create other kinds of responses: shock, anger, disgust. Taking advantage of the widespread public ignorance about the arts ("who is to say what art really is?"), many artists are defining art in a circular way as "anything an artist does."

When the philistine masses object to works of art that offend them, the art establishment is pleased. The negative reaction validates the work's purpose.

Hispanic Catholics in New Mexico are currently objecting to a painting of the Virgin Mary wearing a sexy bikini. Two years ago, Mayor Giuliani and other New York taxpayers found fault with another Virgin Mary covered with elephant dung and clippings from porn magazines. Christians of all stripes are offended at a depiction of the Last Supper featuring Jesus as Mrs. Butterworth and the disciples as advertising cartoon characters. The squeamish and hygienic are bothered by the displays currently in vogue of artist's excrement and bodily fluids.

"Art is supposed to be offensive," the art establishment tells them. Works of art are supposed to stretch people's perceptions and make them uncomfortable. The offensiveness of art is proof that it is working.

Back in 1956, filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille teamed up with a Minnesota judge, E. J. Ruegemer, and his service club, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, to install granite reproductions of the Ten Commandments in parks and on the grounds of municipal buildings.

Mr. DeMille bought into the plan as a way of promoting his new movie The Ten Commandments. Judge Ruegemer, concerned by a juvenile offender who said that he didn't know what the Ten Commandments were, wanted to educate the public about the then uncontroversial notion that the Decalogue is the foundation for all subsequent legal systems. The Eagles chipped in some money and offered the sculptures to their local communities. Altogether, some 4,000 replicas-six feet tall, weighing 2,500 pounds-were installed across the country, with Hollywood's Moses, Charlton Heston, presiding at some of the unveilings.

Elkhart, Ind., had its Ten Commandments monument just outside the municipal building. Over the years, it became overgrown with shrubs, out of sight and out of mind. But recently, after some new landscaping, the monolith became visible again. A man named William A. Books rode by on his bicycle and became offended.

He sued. According to his affidavit, he was "extremely upset and bothered" to see the Ten Commandments, which, he said, symbolizes religions he does not practice. The Indiana Civil Liberties Union took up the case, demanding that the city remove the sculpture. City officials refused. They won the first round, but a federal appeals court ruled that the stone tablets are unconstitutional. The city of Elkhart-to its credit, unlike many cities that cave at the first threat of an ACLU anti-religion lawsuit-appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which last week declined to hear the case.

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