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The Devil Made Me Do It

Some time ago I did a program about the relevance of contemporary art, about its ability to push buttons in all of us. Why do contemporary artists insist on bringing up so much controversy into their work, many people ask. Why do they use such strange materials in making their art? Why don't they make it nice?

To that I can only say that good contemporary art is and always has been relevant, and has always managed to rattle the public and challenge the status quo. It's important to remember that, once upon a time, even Greek art was contemporary, and these Greek artists were pushing the envelope by depicting their Gods as human beings with perfect, sexy, naked bodies. And when the austere Madonnas of the Middle Ages were reinterpreted by Renaissance artists as hot Italian mommas with the chubby baby Christ in their laps---that too raised plenty of conservative eyebrows. Even the universally beloved Impressionist painters initially were the subjects of severe criticism, anger and ridicule by their contemporaries. I got a lot response to this program, with its intentionally provocative title, "Is Contemporary Art Relevant? Hmm, Is the Sky Blue? Is the Pope Catholic?"

Andres Serrano

Since that program went on the air, I've been invited to speak on this subject in different public forums, and each time I find myself in front of an audience consisting of smart people in the autumn years of their life, I feel as if the devil tempts me to provoke them. Instead of playing it safe, I feel a need to challenge them. For example, my friends at the Santa Barbara Museum warned me to be careful in front of the traditionally conservative audience there, and that it might be better to stay away from such subjects as sex and religion. So, that's exactly what the devil made me talk about. I started with "Piss Christ" by Andres Serrano, the photographic image of a white plastic crucifix submerged in golden yellow urine. When it was shown for the first time in the late 80s, it created a storm of protests. Many people chose to see it as blasphemy. I see it as a beautiful and transcendent image of human vulnerability. After all, if God created man in His likeness, shouldn't we accept our blood and sweat---even urine---as a part of the Divine plan?

Chris Ofili

Yesterday at the Beverly Hills City Hall Forum, I found myself, once again, in front of a mostly elderly audience, flashing them with what some people might consider inappropriate images, including "Black Madonna" by Chris Ofili, adorned with elephant dung. A few years ago, Rudolph Guiliani got almost apoplectic about this work, shown at the Brooklyn Museum. What surprises me is that no one in my audience seems to protest or even be shocked by my antics. Maybe it's partially thanks to warming them up with a statement like, "If one wants to be vigorous to the very end, one should remain curious, and continue to be challenged, by exposing oneself to contemporary art." We all know what happens to our bodies when we get lazy. I do believe that if we don't exercise our emotional muscles, so to speak, our souls become flabby. Therefore it should come as no surprise that so many art collectors live longer than your average Joe. Last spring, David Rockefeller, one of the most generous supporters of the Museum of Modern Art, celebrated his ninetieth birthday, and he's still going strong. His friends marvel, "It's amazing to be ninety years old and that curious." So, here is my advice to you: Go out. See as much contemporary art as possible. It's good for you. It will keep your juices flowing. Amen.

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