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An offensive work of art

Culture | Civil-liberties groups defend other controversial public art, so why not the Ten Commandments?

Issue: "As the West burns," Sept. 6, 2003

SOMEONE ERECTS A WORK OF ART IN A PUBLIC place. Most passers-by do not understand it. Some are even offended by it. There is an uproar, with efforts to get the thing removed. The arts community and the civil-liberties groups rally to its defense.

A work of art, they say, must be respected in itself. As for the controversy, that is a good thing. Works of art, they say, are supposed to stir up people. Great art is often offensive, and people's negative reaction is part of the art. Public art is simply doing its job when it provokes the public to open its collective mind to ideas and perceptions it is not used to.

This scenario is repeated over and over again throughout the country, occasioned by museum exhibits funded by taxpayer money, abstract monstrosities erected in city parks, and silly sculptures required by state laws requiring a percentage of the cost of new buildings to be spent on art. The course of the debates is predictable, with the usual suspects standing up for artistic freedom and ridiculing the critics, getting their way every time.

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So why is it different when the work of controversial art depicts the Ten Commandments? Courthouses around the country are having to censor their monuments to the stone tablets of Moses. Why isn't the arts community offended at this assault on artistic freedom? Where are the civil-liberties groups defending artistic expression?

It cannot be because the Commandments have a religious subject matter. Other controversial art has had religious content. The painting of the mother of Jesus that was defaced with animal dung and festooned with cutouts from pornographic magazines, that was defended. If someone cleaned the manure off of the painting and took off the porn clippings, would the arts advocates stop defending it? Then would they think it should be removed from a taxpayer-supported museum, as a violation of the separation between church and state?

If displaying the Commandments in public is illegal, so are lots of other things. The United States Supreme Court itself has a frieze of the Law of Moses. Bibles are used to swear oaths in courtrooms across the land. Maybe the unemployment problem could be eased by hiring thousands of workers to take little files to sand off "In God We Trust" from all of our coins. The Capitol building in Washington and many other official buildings have biblical inscriptions.

Although Attorney General John Ashcroft was widely ridiculed for veiling an allegorical figure that was naked, maybe the government could just set up screens to block off all of that embarrassing religion. Our culture has lost its prudery about sex. Now we have religious prudery.

If the monument in the courthouse is taken as just another work of art, what does it mean?

The meaning of the Ten Commandments in the courthouse is that there is a higher law than that of the state. The monument reminds judges that they are answerable to a Judge who is far more supreme than they are.

The Commandments represent not just the foundation of our national laws but also a roof. There is a moral order above the dictates of a court, a ruler, or a legislature. This notion of a higher law is essential for political freedom-otherwise, the state is the highest authority; it would be impossible to criticize rulers; and lawmakers could impose any tyranny they wished, unrestrained by what the Founders called "the laws of nature and nature's God."

Contemporary art critics say that the reaction of the audience is part of the meaning of a work of art. So what does it mean that the legal system wants to get rid of any reminders of the Ten Commandments?

Postmodernist judicial theories teach that law is nothing more than a "construction," that judges do not merely interpret but actually create laws. No wonder that justices would feel queasy, or maybe scared to death, at contemplating a symbol of a law that is objective, transcendent, and carved in stone.

In legalizing abortion, our legal system has already demolished the Ten Commandments far more effectively than what judges might do to a stone monument. As the court system gears up to approve gay marriage, they will indeed have to deny that there is a higher moral law above what they do. They must insist that they-not God-are the lawgivers with the power to create law oblivious of any moral or natural order that, in the past, limited what human lawmakers could do.

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