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January 29, 2008

But It’s Good Straw

Rod, Ross Douthat, and Nathanael Peters at First Things have all commented on a piece in the latest New Yorker about artist John Currin (note: provocative image at link). Specifically, all three were struck by the following passage from the piece in which the author recalls a conversation with the artist about the reasons behind the pornographic turn in Currin's work.

A reason presented itself soon enough, in the headlines about riots in the Islamic world over twelve Danish newspaper cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed. "The response to that totally shocked me," Currin said at dinner that night. "That the Times decided that it was not going to show the cartoons - O.K., they're terrible-a** cartoons from a quality standpoint, but the idea that these thugs get offended and we just acquiesce, that was the most astonishing display of cowardice. And also the killing of Theo van Gogh, the film director, by some jihadist in Amsterdam - all of a sudden the most liberal societies in the world were having intimidation murders happen. That's when it occurred to me that we might lose this thing - not the Iraq War but the larger struggle." When I asked how this tied into his making pornographic paintings, Currin talked about low birth rates in Europe, and people having sex without having babies, and pornography as a kind of elegy to liberal culture, at which point I lost the thread. "I know how right wing this sounds," I recall him saying, "but I was thinking how pornography could be a superstitious offering to the gods of a dying race."

As Peters says, "Pornography as the artistic first fruits–as a pinnacle of humanity–of modern culture. There is nothing more to say."

Actually, there's something else: the whole thing reminds me of the scene in C.S. Lewis's The Last Battle when Aslan provides a "glorious feast" inside the stable. The dwarfs, who insist that they "are for the dwarfs," can neither see the feast nor taste it. Instead, they think that they are eating and drinking the things you would expect to find in a stable: straw, rotten vegetables, and dirty water. By way of explanation, Aslan says that

They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they can not be taken out.

In Currin's case, the dwarfs really are eating straw and drinking dirty water but the same prison that won't let them taste and enjoy the good stuff has them believing that they're partaking of a "glorious feast." Even evidence that the stuff is bad for you -- Europe's low birth rates -- becomes a good thing. That's because while it may only be straw, it's straw of our own choosing and comes in lots of different colors and textures. It's good straw.

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I didn't understand the point of this post. The cartoons really were in bad taste. They linked the prophet Muhammed to modern-day religious/political Islamic fundamentalism. Christians would object in the same manner if Jesus was portrayed as supporting an anti-gay bomb-thrower like Dr. James Dobson.

In modern culture, newspaper editors are the voice of the people (or a segment of the people), and when that voice stereotypes entire religious populations rather than rightly criticizing the behavior of the fundamentalist fringe, there is nothing wrong with an apology. Isn't repentance a Christian principle?

If you've followed the cartoon story, it's pretty evident that Dutch culture has issues with insularity and racism. The world is not so simple as to divide into "conservative" and "liberal".

Currin is an artist and he has his own view of the world. If you look at his piece "Veil" on the Wikipedia entry, the image could apply equally to Islamic and to Christian "modesty" movements. The images on the Gagosian Gallery page are gross, but we shouldn't confuse the frame of mind of the artist with the frame of mind of the viewer. We don't know how society at large will see the motivation for and meaning of the work. For example, Currin may have unintentionally given given us the answer to the "low birth problem".

[Ed. note: Walter, I took out your link because it's our policy not to link to that type of site. --GRD]


[Walter note: "That type of site" is an art museum and the target of the link is an American Gothic style painting of an apparent lesbian couple - fully clothed in drab attire. The woman on the left is nine months pregnant, and the other woman appears to be about 5 months pregnant]. See the Gagosian Gallery page and search for the painting "Patch and Perl, 2006".

GRD, you may want to take a second look at the erotic painting "The Veil" on the Wikipedia site.

Gina Dalfonzo

Walter, just to clarify, I was referring to sites with images that might be taken as, by your own description, "gross." Although you're right, I should probably put a note in the text above about "The Veil."

Steve (SBK)

I'm sure Roberto can respond better, but I think part of the point was to show the skewing of our values in modern culture.
(Being an artist, by the by, doesn't give you a pass on bad taste).
When someone sees pornography as their "first fruits" to "God", they are "essentially" participating in a culture that values pleasure (and death) over family and life.
(You could probably also describe Dobson, not as an "anti-gay bomb-thrower" but as "pro-family, stickin'-to-his-guns" ... but, we usually see what we want to see).

Gina Dalfonzo

The whole idea gives me a sort of "Children of Men" vibe (the book, not the movie).

Steve (SBK)

That's exactly what this line made me think of: "and people having sex without having babies,"
(having just read the book last month).


Everyone is in a hurry to jump all over the pervy artist. However, if you look at Currin's comments, it sounds as if he has been reading Mark Steyn. I'm surprised the interviewer didn't press him further on the subject.

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