Art often precedes the shock of change; Essay: The controversy over the "Sensation" exhibit in New York has a precedent that goes back to the Renaissance.


Who decides what is art? What constitutes censorship? How are indecency and obscenity to be defined, and what is the artist's responsibility to the public when public funds are involved?

These questions increasingly confront the arts in America during this final decade of the 20th century, a period in which art and artists have become targets of a conservative cultural backlash against the social upheavals of the last 50 years.

This week, an expected ruling by a federal court judge may offer at least short-term answers to these questions. The judge will decide whether New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani can cut off city funds to the Brooklyn Museum of Art in the wake of its exhibition, "Sensation," which he finds offensive.

But whatever the judge's decision, history suggests it is unlikely there will be any truce soon in America's so-called "culture wars," which began in earnest a decade ago over the homoerotic photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe but which have their roots in a centuries-long shift of the role of the arts in society.

Since the end of World War II, when New York replaced Paris as the center of the art world, American artists have been the cultural avant-garde of a society in which civil rights, anti-war protest, youth culture, women's liberation, gay rights, the collapse of communism and the emergence of the Internet have radically transformed the country from what it was 50 years ago.

Throughout history, new artistic styles have often heralded major social changes. Typically the reaction against unwelcome change has taken the form of attacks on the artists and the art associated with it.

If the arts are under attack today, it is because the arts have become the scapegoat for the opponents of the new type of society that is emerging.

Of course, this is not the first time in history the arts have taken the hit for unwelcome social change.

At the end of the 15th century, the first flowering of the Renaissance in Italy was cut short by the dictatorship of Girolamo Savonarola, a fiery Dominican monk who denounced the humanist values of the era's most celebrated artists. Savonarola urged his fellow Florentines to smash statuary and burn heretical paintings in the streets to rid the city of such blasphemy.

These "bonfires of the vanities" were aimed primarily at ideas considered subversive -- particularly the new, questioning attitude toward authority and the emphasis on reason rather than faith.

In the 16th century Paolo Veronese was called before the Inquisition to answer for his painting, "The Last Supper," which depicted Jesus surrounded by Venetian grandees together with their colorful retainers, clowns, dogs and dwarfs.

Church critics claimed placing such "low" characters next to Christ was blasphemy. Things might have gone badly for the artist had he not retitled the painting "Christ in the House of Levi," thus changing the subject from one of Catholicism's holiest events to a much less solemn occasion.

In the 17th century, Caravaggio's realistic treatment of biblical characters was considered so shocking by contemporaries he was called "the anti-Christ of painting."

The "Calling of St. Matthew," which showed the apostle being summoned from a dingy tavern, and "Death of the Virgin," which depicted Mary not as a high-born lady but as a humble woman of the people, were both rejected by church officials on the grounds they demeaned their sacred subjects.

By the 18th century the aristocracy had replaced the church as the most important patron -- and censor -- of the arts. Princes and courtiers vied with one another in displays of conspicuous consumption, commissioning works that glorified their secular power and wealth.

Only in 17th-century Holland, where a prosperous middle class had arisen, were artists able to achieve a measure of creative independence.

Dutch artists painted pictures for this new market rather than for the church or palace. Their pictures were often visual double entendres with two meanings, one conventional and moralistic, the other humorous or risque.

Since these artists produced for a market, they had greater say over their subject matter and its treatment. Increasingly the artist himself, rather than church officials or the nobility, became the authority that defined what art was.

The political and industrial revolutions of the 19th century inspired painters like Millet and Courbet to glorify the rude life of peasants and farmers in a new realistic style that broke sharply with the "grand manner" of academic painting.

The egalitarian impulse behind realism also influenced the Impressionists, whose light-filled canvases expressed a subliminal vision of ideal life for the common man -- a world of eternal springtime and happy, healthy people.

Impressionism, with its easy living amid unspoiled scenery, was both a reflection of and a protest against the forces of industrialization, urbanization and secularization that were transforming Europe in the latter half of the 19th century.

By the beginning of the 20th century, artists no longer felt obliged to justify the status quo at all. Indeed, they often openly opposed it, taking as their mission the task of "shocking the bourgeoisie." For most of this century critics have railed at artists for creating offensive works merely for the sake of being offensive.

Taking the long view, however, shows that the "culture wars" of the 1990s are not so different from those of the 1490s. Both grow out of entrenched opposition to new ideas and new social arrangements.

Likewise, as people come to regard a more pluralistic, multicultural America as the normal state of affairs, even the art of the 1990s eventually will cease to seem shocking -- a result hardly anyone 50 years ago could have predicted or even imagined.

Pub Date: 10/11/99

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