This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, January 16, 1991

January 16, 1991 - Politically Correct Art

Remember the flap over federally funded artwork a few months back? Some Congress people hemmed and hawed about the blatant indecency of some the works underwritten by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Before that was the Mapplethorpe trial, wherein the curator of a public art gallery was put on trial because the gallery was showing homoerotic photographs.

There's nothing new about the suspicion that artists and their work are dangerously and subversively sexy. People have even tried to get fig leaves painted over the naughty bits lewdly displayed on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. After all, if God had wanted us to be naked, no doubt He would have made us that way. (Wait, is that right?)

I'm not trying to suggest that we're all lurching into a new age of prudery. For one thing, the National Endowment for the Arts can still give money to artists without running background checks on their morals. Mapplethorpe's pictures got their showing. Nobody has pasted BVD's over Michelangelo's Adam.

But I admit that I'm a little troubled by a more subtle form of censorship: the cultural sensitivity of the well-meaning and thoughtful liberal.

For example, last week some Library Trustees, local artists and I talked about the role of art in libraries. We all agreed that it would be a good thing to have more paintings, sculptures, and other visual artwork in and around our branches.

Bobbi Lawyer, a Douglas County sculptor, showed us a portfolio of some of her works. One of the pieces, entitled "Self-Made Man," jumped right off the photograph into my heart. It captured almost everything I believe about life and about libraries. The image is simple but arresting: a young man, holding a hammer high over his head, is about to strike the chisel in his other hand, which is wedged into a block of stone that is also the whole of his lower body. In brief, he is carving himself into being.

Many of Ms. Lawyer's statues were equally fine -- I'm thinking in particular of "Emergence," wherein a woman unfolds herself from a shell, or shroud, or shadow. But "Self-Made Man" really spoke to me.

A little while later, one of my Board members raised an interesting issue. Assuming that we could raise enough money to buy some art pieces for our libraries (probably through private donations and grants), should we really have an image of a MAN outside the library? There are many, many images of heroic men throughout history. Wouldn't it be a better thing to have an image that sought to inspire women?

There are several ways to look at this. Here's one of them: I am a man; the Board member is a woman. Each of us preferred the things that spoke most precisely to us as individuals.

Here's another way to look at it: Over 70% of the people who use Douglas County libraries are women.

Ultimately, I think acquiring any piece of fine art could only improve any one of our branches. But the issue gets more complicated the more you examine it. Let's take another look, for instance, at "Emergence." The sculpture is haunting and beautiful. It also shows a woman's bare breasts.

You see the problem? If we respond to the politically correct feminist perspective that we should commission or purchase an artwork that features a woman rather than a man, then we might also have to respond to the equally politically correct perspective (at least in some quarters) that we should not display any image of a woman that might be considered exploitative or obscene.

So what do we do then? If we sidestep the issue altogether by not featuring either a woman or a man, but, I don't know, a coyote, then we open ourselves to criticism from the many farmers who believe that coyotes are nasty varmints who should be shot on sight. If, in response to that concern, we put up a frontier hunter (carefully obscured so you can't tell if it's a man or a woman), then we might rile the animal activists.

The point I'm trying to make is that politics really has no place in art.

Great art, art that endures, defies the conventions of its era. It dares to step beyond the boundaries of popular opinion. It is not concerned with how well it fits into the contemporary prejudices. Rather, it reaches through the surface, to find that part in all of us that belongs equally to yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

And art is not a four letter word.

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