Controversial boon
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 own nickel!"

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 GuiltThe 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 viewer.

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 sexuality.

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.

The 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.