Suppose They Gave a Culture War and Nobody Came?

Where's the outrage, indeed. The Washington Post's Philip Kennicott reflects on the decline of the fine art of museum controversy. Whatever happened to the tradition of exhibition scandals that began with the Metropolitan Museum's allegedly racist "Harlem on My Mind" of 1969, continued through the allegedly obscene Robert Mapplethorpe show of 1989, came home to Washington with the allegedly unpatriotic "Enola Gay" of 1995, and reached a premillenial fervor with the allegedly blasphemous "Sensation" in 1999?

Museum directors and activists weigh in. Do we have a more tolerant society, a public seeking solace in museums rather than shock after September 11, commodification of art and commercialization of artists (and not in the good old Andy Warhol sense)? Or was it the loss of all pretense to values in a society "so coarse that it doesn't leap out at us anymore," as the "Sensation" arch-critic William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights put it. Kennicott publishes one of the rare open acknowlegements of the symbiosis of censurer and censured (if not actually censored):

[Arnold] Lehman [Brooklyn Museum director in 1999] says that if nothing else, "Sensation" helped his museum build exactly the audience he wanted: His museum, he says, now has the "single youngest audience for a general fine arts museum" in the country, and the most diverse audience.

And Donohue of the Catholic League, which still posts regular alerts about offensive art on its Web site, says he works hard to avoid the unintended consequences of controversy.

"Artists more than anybody will call me up and ask me to sound the alarms," he says. But he's become selective about which art he condemns so as not to build up an artist's reputation.

"If it's in some dump in Seattle, why would I draw attention to it?" he says.

But I think there's another reason for the decline of old-style museum contoversy, the shift of the protest frontier to environmental themes, especially in photography. At whom should the outrage be directed? At the governments and corporations creating such ugliness? Or at ourselves for benefiting from their activities -- and for aestheticizing the results?

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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