Art and tastefulness

Art is one of the most powerful tools for social commentary, although that commentary can easily cross from provocative-but-necessary to downright distasteful.

Back when I was in college and had to take an art appreciation course (nice enough professor, easy A, but snooze-fest), we had to do blog postings on various paintings we saw in our textbook. One of those paintings was Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary,” which was the subject of controversy and a lawsuit between the City of New York and Brooklyn Museum of Art when it was on display there in 1995.

For those of you who have heard of it but have never seen what it looks like, it’s crap. Literally. The painting is a black Virgin Mary plopped with elephant excrement (Ofili’s signature) and cutouts from pornographic magazines.

Frankly, if we’re commenting strictly on talent, Ofili’s work needs the dung. Aside from the offensiveness to religious belief, it’s a really ugly piece of work, as is a lot of his stuff.

Of course, on the blog, the one classmate who was really open-minded went out of her way to pontificate on its beauty to show how the rest of us were far more narrow-minded than she.

I didn’t care much for this person, by the way.

The next year Mom, my roommate Makenzie and I took a trip to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Granted, at the IMA in fairly conservative Indiana, you’d never find dung, but there was a room in a wing of more avant-garde modern art. Of that art was a video playing on the screen.

The clip Mom and I watched had two guys in clown suits wearing ties with the Star of David on them as they were dancing around — I think as a commentary on Israel. It was a little weird but not too out there.

Then it got to the part where the artists sacrificed a goat. Mom and I had to walk out quickly. Gore in general is bad enough, but I cannot stomach watching anything like that happen to animals.

Needless to say, I’m rarely if ever a fan of modern artwork, and I learned this week that I’m not the only one following a new exhibition at Gallery Guichard in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.

The exhibit, called “Confronting Truths: Wake Up!” was created by artist Ti-Rock Moore to confront racism in America. As part of the exhibit, there’s a life-size mannequin of Michael Brown laying face down behind police tape, which has led to outrage on social media.

Many people have called it exploitative, and Brown’s father Michael Sr. was upset that their family tragedy was being put on display. Others accused Moore, who is white, or using serious problems and crimes against blacks for her own gain, and there’s been some question if the families of the victims listed in the exhibit are getting any financial return from use of their loved ones’ names.

This isn’t the first time that racism has been addressed using art, or that a white person has tried to comment on ills that effect the black community. If it’s done right, then you can have a needed conversation.

But the use of a mannequin to look like Brown? That’s just disrespectful to Brown and his family. Using someone who is recently deceased as a way to make a point — whether it’s intended as art or not — in this case is not going to spur a serious discussion on racism.

The artist saying that she used the mannequin to “explore the unearned privilege (she has) of being born white” is only serving to get her name in the spotlight for 15 minutes.

At least the gallery owner was honest enough to say the exhibit was a good way of bringing money in.

Art can be a wonderful way to start a conversation that needs to be had. At its best it can provoke, fascinate, maybe even startle in moderation.

But using a mannequin of someone whose family is still mourning and has voiced their opposition, all to understand some superficial factor that is beyond anyone’s control?

That’s an elephant-sized load of excrement.

You can reach Allison Gallagher at or on Twitter @Troydailynews.

You can reach Allison Gallagher at or on Twitter @Troydailynews.