Art that draws fire also draws an audience
Tom Moody Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
The usual line taken by opponents of
publicly funded art goes something like this: "If
artists want to shock and offend, let 'em do it on their
But when artists finance their own art,
as is the case with virtually everything shown at the
500X Gallery, artists' cooperative that has operated in
Dallas for the past 12 years, it is frequently ignored
or pushed to the margins of public consciousness. Yet
how much value does of work of art have in our culture
when it is seen and discussed only by an elite handful?
Take, for example, a work titled The Cause of Catholic
Guilt, currently on view in the "Open Show,"
500X's annual fund-raising exhibition. This sculpture is
by David Szafranski, who kept it on the wall after
showing it last month in a group exhibition of gallery
artists' work. The piece is worth a second look.
The Cause of
Catholic Guilt consists of a maze of electrical
conduit mounted flat on the wall. It looks as if it
ought to be plugged in and humming, but power flows
through the conduit only in the figurative sense. There
are junction boxes where the loops of twisting metal
intersect, on which Mr. Szafranski has placed globes,
saucers and cylinders of tacky milk glass (the type
normally seen on bad lamps) jutting out perpendicular to
the wall. A the tip of each glass object sits a rubber
nipple from a baby bottle, pointing suggestively at the
The jungle of symbolic breasts is
designed to make the viewer feel uncomfortable (and to
laugh) at the thought of "sucking power"—and it works. It is an
elaborate Freudian joke and has been given a
deliberately provocative title. Whether "Catholic guilt"
stems from premature weaning (a preposterous notion, one
hopes) is barely relevant to the work, which is
concerned with deeper metaphorical issues.
But suppose, for the sake of argument,
that a panel of "experts" had approved National
Endowment for the Arts funding for the piece. And
suppose an alert congressman with a large Catholic
constituency chose to make political hay out of the
artwork's implied critique of religion. As with Andres
Serrano's much-discussed photograph of a crucifix
immersed in urine (which no one would have noticed if
not for its outrageous title), one could easily imagine
a flurry of speeches, letters to the editor,
denunciation by the Catholic Church and the threatened
withdrawal of funding. One could also envision a solemn
parade of art professors comparing the work to Marcel
Duchamp's Large Glass,
one of the acknowledged masterpieces of 20th-century
art, which draws parallels between machines and human
Even if awareness of the artwork never
jumped to the national level the way the controversy
over the Serrano piece did, it would be discussed and
mulled over, which is what art is for.
Cause of Catholic Guilt received no public
funding. As with thousands of privately sponsored works
of art, it will be chuckled over by a few jaded art
patrons, perhaps sold, perhaps disassembled and returned
to the artist's studio. This seems an ignominious fate
for a work so amusing and thought-provoking.
Tom Moody, a Dallas artist, is Texas
editor of Art Papers, an art journal based in Atlanta.