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Art in America

The half-dozen contestants, 20-something aspiring artists all, enter the famous Phillips de Pury art auction house. Mr. de Pury himself ushers them into the special room where they are presented with a collection of paintings by Andres Serrano, the man who came to fame in 1989 with the ghastly painting, sponsored by the National Endowment of the Arts, depicting a crucifix dunked in a jar of urine. They are hugely impressed. The final painting they are shown is just that – the original “Piss Christ.” They are in awe, quietly expressing their amazement at the talent. And then the door opens and in steps the master. The students freeze, eyes bright, mouths agape. The curator announces, “the great, great Serrano!” One girl instinctively bows reverently.

Serrano explains his art. “Life, art, politics. It’s all the same s—…. People in general always think their s— is the best. So if you really want to see some real s—, check out my s—.” Six times he utters the expletive; the students giggle with glee.

And now the contestants are given their assignment: Create a body of art as shocking as that of Serrano. The judges will select the four contestants who will proceed to the next round. More giggles and laughter. Each artist is given a $100 voucher with which to buy supplies.

One man says he will make an artwork about that “taboo theme,” the sexually abusive priest. “It’s not an anti-religion piece,” he claims. “I don’t know anybody personally who’s been sexually abused by a priest, but I read a statistic once that said there were more Catholic priests living with AIDS than there were everyone else.”

Besides garbled syntax, it is pure idiocy. He can’t possibly think a small group of homosexual priests represents the largest grouping of the million-plus Americans living with HIV or AIDS. But he is an artist, and he does. He shoots a crude photograph of two pairs of feet in a bed, below a crucifix. One is meant to represent the priest, the other the abused boy.

That’s just the beginning. Now a girl, handsomely endowed, takes a batch of pictures of herself wearing only panties. “High art” is how she describes her product. The curator examines her semi-naked pictures, with emphasis on her naked breasts, and deems the display to be “gorgeous.” But what the judges would later describe as “brilliant” is her special touch: setting these pictures next to a black felt-tip pen so the gallery audience could scrawl on them whatever graffiti or obscenities they inspire.

One contestant is a reputed Christian. His presentation is a weird distortion of the Last Supper, with a beardless Jesus Christ surrounded by gossipy people holding weapons. Another woman paints models with bloodied faces with the slogans “Syphilis by Prada” and “Herpes by Chanel.”

There is the dreaded self-described “performance artist,” who constructs some sort of demented, dilapidated cardboard tepee, then sits in the middle of it with a plastic bag over her head, like a mental patient, fondling what looks like a bag of excrement. Serrano likes it but complains, “I don’t smell anything.”

Then there are the men. The self-described gay man is fixated on the vision of a friend who once told him he was capable of “auto-fellatio” – performing oral sex on himself. (We’re told he’s become a recluse since discovering this talent, chuckle, chuckle.) Our artist paints the scene, but the judges are appalled. There is no shock value, they proclaim. “It should have been a photograph of you attempting this position,” a judge laments.

One artist explains that he had his first erection while watching “The Little Mermaid,” so he decides to create a line drawing of the iconic shape of Mickey Mouse’s head filled with “misshapen genitals, b—holes and nipples.” But it’s not shocking enough, he concludes, so he goes into the bathroom and decorates it with his own semen.

This isn’t the only work of “art” with that theme. There’s the man who titles his painting “My Tranny Porno Fantasy.” He explains what he’s going to paint: “I have this vision of myself as post-coital, post-bondage, post-(ejaculation) tranny with really bad makeup, an electrical cord around my neck and a pink wig.” He worries aloud, laughing out loud, that the semen isn’t visible enough on his painted face. His colleagues are shocked – and love it. “Ryan’s piece is just … a little … yeah,” one contestant laughs nervously, approvingly.

The winners are chosen and move on. Another episode of “Work of Art” is complete, a program aired on national television via your basic cable subscription by the Bravo network, owned by NBC, soon to be owned by Comcast, sponsored by the likes of Geico insurance and Crest toothpaste, and rated TV-14, meaning it is appropriate for any youngster at that age.

There is no outcry because our popular culture is thoroughly rotten.

There reaches a point where you have to say it: I believe in evil. Satan is laughing.


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