Earlier this week, I caught part of the segment on Glenn Beck’s radio show on his Obama Pee Pee eBay auction. In case you missed it, Beck created an Obama in Pee Pee “artwork” to tweak the Left and expose their hypocrisy regarding artistic license and freedom of speech. He auctioned it on eBay (all proceeds going to charity), but eBay pulled it before it ended.
By sheer coincidence, a friend tipped me to this provocatively titled blog piece from Bob Duggan: Is Glenn Beck’s Obama in Pee Pee the Last Shot Fired of the ‘80s and ‘90s Culture Wars? Glenn predicted the left would fail to see the point he was trying to make. Duggan does not disappoint.
Here’s Duggan’s opening salvo:
The sight of a grown man trying to stuff a bobbing plastic doll into a jar of what he claims to be his own urine is a sad thing, but when that man is right-wing commentator Glenn Beck making a strange comment about freedom of speech combined with a hateful symbolic act against the President, it’s not surprising. Beck tweely titles his artwork Obama in Pee Pee (shown above), but let’s call it what it is—Piss Obama, a 35-years-too-late reply (sic) to Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, one of the landmark works of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s “culture wars” pitting conservatives versus liberals in the battle for artistic expression. Beck hopes to piss off liberals with this act, but what he might have actually achieved is firing the last shot (squirt?) of the culture wars, proving perhaps once and for all that those cruel days are over.
Actually, I think the sight of a grown man dressed up like a character from a Pepe Le Pew cartoon trying to stuff a bobbing plastic doll that looks like Barack Obama impersonating Buddy Christ from Kevin Smith’s Dogma into a jar of what Glenn explicitly said was not his own urine is extremely funny. But the sight of a grown man who completely misses the point of Beck’s satire, gleans hidden messages in Beck’s urine, befuddles himself trying to expose Beck’s diabolical motives, reacts pretty much as Glenn predicted… and somehow thinks Beck comes off as the fool in the exchange—now that’s hilarious.
I knew I was in for a hard slog midway through Duggan’s first sentence:
“… when that man is right-wing commentator Glenn Beck making a strange comment about freedom of speech combined with a hateful symbolic act against the President…”
Everybody knows who Beck is. Labeling him a “right-wing commentator” is just a lazy ploy to poison the well. And rather than explain why Beck made “… a strange comment about freedom of speech,” Duggan simply tells us what to think. Ten points from Slytherin.
Characterizing the Obama Pee Pee auction as “a hateful symbolic act against the President” is lazy and dishonest. How does Duggan know Beck’s motives are hateful? As Thomas Sowell explains: “It is amazing how many people think that they can answer an argument by attributing bad motives to those who disagree with them. Using this kind of reasoning, you can believe or not believe anything about anything, without having to bother to deal with facts or logic.” However, attributing bad motives is a useful Alinsky tactic to put opponents on the defensive.
Now a non-expert might say, “C’mon, the guy put a figure of the President in urine. Of course it’s hateful.” True. Someone who knows nothing about modern art could make that assumption. But Duggan’s expertise disqualifies him from such misunderstanding. Duggan knows Beck’s satire was in response to artwork depicting Obama as messiah; he discusses it in his second paragraph. But he suggests that Beck is only now responding to Serrano’s 1987 display to paint Beck as out of touch. (Presumably Duggan meant to say a 25-years–too-late reply: 2012-1987=25. Math)
But so what if Beck’s auction was in response to Serrano’s Piss Christ; how is that “too late?” Since when do responses to art have a “sell by” date? Serrano’s “art” doesn’t have an expiration date. Duggan’s description of his blog refutes his own point:
In this image-drenched world, the line between the visual arts and society is less distinct than ever before. The artists of today speak not only to present times but also engage in dialogue with the artists of the past, who both haunt us and challenge us to rise above the mundane. Picture This stands at the crossroads of the present, past, and future in art, taking a good look around at the landscape and what it means to us. In doing so, it aims to provide a roadmap for those interested in how looking at art leads to thinking about life (emphasis added).
Should art criticism of Rembrandt be characterized as a “350-years-too-late reply” to Rembrandt?
This sentence is a doozy:
“Beck hopes to piss off liberals with this act, but what he might have actually achieved is firing the last shot (squirt?) of the culture wars, proving perhaps once and for all that those cruel days are over.”
Does Duggan really think Beck’s eBay auction represents the Appomattox of the culture wars? Actually, he does. His oh-so-clever takeaway compares Beck to a Japanese soldier fighting decades after WWII ended, bringing his “35-years-too-late response” comment full circle. He probably thinks it’s a clever metaphor; actually it’s just a forced simile.
Bizarrely, Duggan finds a comical Obama doll in Pee Pee to be a hateful symbol, but thinks Serrano’s display of a crucifix—which for Christians represents the Lord of the universe—isn’t about religion at all. Huh?
In his rambling monologue, Beck calls forth the ghost not only of Serrano’s Piss Christ, but also that of Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, perhaps the most controversial work of the mid-1990s. Beck missed only Robert Mapplethorpe to complete the set. But that omission is especially telling. Piss Christ (like Piss Obama as a response to The Truth) isn’t about religion; it’s about oppression and suffering—specifically the oppression and suffering of the LGBT community in America, both then and now. Serrano chose the medium of bodily fluid at a time when bodily fluids were synonymous with the death sentence of AIDS. Piss Christ wasn’t an attack on religion or religious imagery but rather a modern use of that imagery to depict a new type of suffering and appeal for a new type of understanding and acceptance. Mapplethorpe may have photographed homosexual life in the 80s, but Serrano photographed its spirit.
Good grief. Beck’s omission of Mapplethorpe’s sick photographs is “especially telling?” Beck didn’t mention Ansel Adams’ photographs or opine on the merits of the Designated Hitter Rule either. What pray tell is “especially telling” about this omission? I thought Chris Matthews was the Grandmaster of dog whistle detection, but Duggan can hear dog whistles in what Beck doesn’t say.
I believe that Beck’s stunt comes not in response to The Truth but rather to the truth of the last election about public opinion regarding homosexuality and, most significantly, same-sex marriage. Linda Hirshman’s Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution (How a Despised Minority Pushed Back, Beat Death, Found Love, and Changed America for Everyone) argues that the American LGBT movement’s reached a tipping point of public acceptance, literally a victory not just for them, but for all people of any type of difference. The days of “culture wars” pitting American against American based on our differences rather than uniting us on our common values and dreams are over (I hope).
I won’t go so far as to accuse Beck of timing his stunt to blunt the impact of Saturday’s Day Without Art marking the passing of so many LGBT artists over the years. Beck’s statement rambled in so many directions that a clear message is hard to untangle, but the dog whistle of recalling Piss Christ and the “culture wars” of the past clearly tries to sound the classic anti-gay alarm signal. Like Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese soldier who fought on for three decades after World War II ended, Beck’s fighting a war long over. Call it Obama in Pee Pee or Piss Obama, Beck’s odd foray into the art world serves only to remind us of a time and a mindset best remembered in its passing.
How generous of Duggan not to go so far as to accuse Beck of timing his stunt to blunt the impact of an LGBT day of remembrance. In the same spirit, I won’t go so far as to accuse Duggan of timing his article to blunt the impact of Advent, Hannukah and Pearl Harbor. And I’ll give him props for the mileage (and dog whistles) he gets from attributing bad motives to people he disagrees with. First Beck was being hateful to the President. Now we learn that he was actually gay bashing via secret signals that 99.9% of his followers missed. (Hmm, maybe there’s something to those rumors about Larry Sinclair, the “Down-Low Club” at Rev. Wright’s church, the “wedding ring” Obama wore at Harvard, Reggie Love, Kal Penn, “Frank,” composite “girlfriends,” and how he throws a baseball. Excellent investigative work, Bob!)
The only apparent good news for Duggan is that the culture wars are relics of the distant past (he seems confused about who were/are the aggressors), and that Beck is the last combatant for the losing side. For an obsolescent pantomime villain, Beck sure draws a lot of hostile ammo. As Andrew Breitbart said, “if you aren’t drawing enemy fire, it’s because you’re not over the target.”
Personally I have no idea why Serrano put a crucifix in a jar of urine. Why did van Gogh cut off his ear? But unless Serrano was totally clueless, he had to know that millions would find his work blasphemous.
Yesterday I read about a Swedish artist with a German surname who uses ashes of incinerated Holocaust victims as the medium for his drawings. Perhaps this chap would say he intended no disrespect to the victims’ families, but “chose the medium of [dead Jewish remains to highlight] the suffering and oppression of the [neo-Nazi] community” and “appeal for a new type of understanding and acceptance.” Thankfully, most of us reject such sophistry and find his so-called art reprehensible and obscene. By what criteria does Duggan distinguish hateful Holocaust and Obama-in-Pee-Pee art from legitimate Jesus-in-urine art? Once universally-recognized lines of decency are crossed, lines are blurred, redrawn and erased again and again until as Dostoyevsky famously predicted, “everything is permitted.”
If Beck’s Obama in Pee Pee parody is hateful toward the President, then it follows a fortiori that Serrano’s display was hateful toward Christianity. It’s hard to see how one can rationally believe otherwise. However for Duggan, an image of Obama in fake urine is hateful, but an image of the Son of God in the real thing is perfectly fine. Even if Duggan was consistent, that still wouldn’t make his belief about Beck reasonable. He fails to consider the more likely explanation that Beck was mocking any or all of the following: Serrano, D’Antuono and/or Obama idolatry generally. Context matters. D’Antuono’s work and the Obama idolatry that inspired it provide the context to understand Beck’s parody. But Beck’s stunt remains an insoluble riddle for someone like Duggan who thinks the last election was about… (wait for it) … “public opinion about homosexuality and … same sex marriage.”
Single-issue voters find it hard to understand those who don’t share their singular focus. This may explain why Duggan never quite manages to understand Glenn’s point. It isn’t terribly complicated. Glenn sought to expose the hypocrisy of the Left re: “controversial” shock art. By creating an obviously satirical work of art that offends liberals, Beck reveals the Left’s feigned fidelity to artistic integrity and freedom of speech as a sham.
If you want to celebrate blasphemous and sacrilegious images, fine, knock yourself out. But don’t pretend you’re taking a principled stand by labeling literal excrement “art.” And please no more double-standards re: free speech. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech to offensive speech from all sides, including critics of the offensive speech liberals deem sacrosanct. But the Orwellian Left wants it both ways. They want blanket protection for obscenity they label “art”, and attempt to censor opposing viewpoints they label “censorship,” “racist” or “offensive.” Their real principle is “free speech for themselves, but not for others.”
Their hypocritical façade is exposed when a controversial work offends them. When normal people are offended by Piss Christ or Mapplethorpe’s graphic photos, the Left is ecstatic. But if a truly counter-cultural artist insults one of the Left’s sacred cows—or the “Religion of Peace” that stones women and executes homosexuals (somebody please explain that to me)—then the Tolerance mask slips, revealing their true Totalitarian face.
Putting a crucifix in urine or smearing feces on Christian iconography isn’t art; it’s defecating on art. An infant’s soiled diaper isn’t art no matter how closely the diaper stains resemble the work of Jackson Pollock. Piss Christ, smearing elephant dung on an icon of Madonna, etc. are to real art what the heckler’s veto is to free speech.
In fairness, I shouldn’t knock Piss Christ because it inspired what might have been my greatest artistic triumph. During Serrano’s fifteen minutes of fame, I told my friends the following story. I tried to keep a straight face, but I suspect they knew I was being facetious. My so-called artist career could have gone like this:
I told my friends that I had submitted a mason jar filled solely with my own urine to the GuggenheimMuseum, only to see my beautiful work of art rejected. For whatever reason, those pretentious white museum curators ignored the challenges I overcame to produce my masterwork. First, I had to consume more beer than the Surgeon General or State Trooper sobriety tests recommend—but alas we must suffer for our art. Second, much of my “work” never made it to the canvas, as my inebriated state impaired not only my driving ability, but also my usual pinpoint accuracy.
I took small comfort in knowing that my work’s rejection had nothing to do with its artistic value. Critics conceded that it showed tremendous originality and potential. They appreciated how the amber hues I produced—derived from a carefully nuanced mix of dark and light brews—refracted different kinds of light. No, the power-brokers of the art world decreed that—for reasons having nothing to do with art—my precious sola urine jar would never be displayed alongside similar masterpieces by giants named Mapplethorpe, Ofili, Pollock and Serrano.
They rightly feared that my sans cross “pee pee” would offend atheists.
Here in this image-drenched world, the line between a doll in a jar of Pee Pee and a crucifix in a 25-year-old jar of urine may be less distinct than ever before, but hypocrisy, double standards and incoherence are on full display.