It has been ten years since The Onion published its spoof of controversies over NEA-funded antics. By the time it appeared in 2004, audiences were pretty well accustomed to what Hilton Kramer once termed “a jolly rape of public sensibilities.” Writing in 1996, Kramer declared it almost went without saying that the “America-as-merde” tenor of so much recognized art arrives supported by NEA grants.
That was also the year a professor at Bates College, William Pope, received a $20.000 grant for two performance pieces: In one, he would chain himself to an ATM machine in his underwear. In the second, according to news accounts, he planned to walk around New York City wearing a six-foot long white tube as a mammoth codpiece. This, you recall, followed on the heals Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ of blessed memory and preceded the foofaraw over Chris Ofili’s Virgin Mary at the Brooklyn Museum.
Whatever your position on the benefits of a federal hand in the arts—particularly to individual artists—The Onion piece is an evergreen. It is still fun to read after so many years, so many assaults brought to us with taxpayer dollars.
KANSAS CITY, MO—Republican lawmakers and conservative religious groups blasted the National Endowment For The Arts & Crafts Tuesday, claiming that the organization has allocated federal funds for “obscene crafts.
The $15,000 grant in question was awarded last October to Detroit arts & craftsman Albert Kahle, 39, for a nine-foot macramé penis titled “Father (By Mother),” which is currently part of the Macramazement! exhibit at the prestigious National Gallery Of Arts & Crafts in Kansas City, MO.
“‘Father (By Mother)’ is neither art nor craft,” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) said. “It’s trash. The fact that American taxpayers are paying for this kind of lewd handiwork is outrageous.”
The macramé-work phallus comprises three discrete elements: testicles, shaft, and head. The testicles are knotted in Double Alternating Lark’s Head style and decorated with black maple beads. The shaft of the penis, knotted of Tammy’s Hemp Cord in flesh tone, is embellished with subtle strands of Half-Knot sinnet cord in light blue and Amy’s Cord in pale lavender. The head, the most detailed portion of the work, is embellished with a spray of silver glitter.
The Onion’s burlesque description of the art work is a pitch-perfect rendition of what art criticism has been reduced to. When grounds for judgment have disappeared or are dismissed, detailed description is all that is left. Reportage continues:
When expressing the human condition through craft, the craftsman is responsible only to himself,” Sirota [fictional NEAC spokesman] said. “It takes great courage to pick up those popsicle sticks and empty dishwashing-soap bottles and bring something forth out of the ether. The creative space is outside Congress’ jurisdiction.”
The macramé penis is Kahle’s first phallic work of art & craft to receive media attention. His other major works include a shoebox diorama titled “Abe Lincoln In The Bathtub,” a 13-foot-tall newspaper and poster-paint papier-mâché penis titled “What’s Black And White And Red All Over?,” and “Pin(whee)ls,” a collection of 200 pinwheels made of construction paper, pencils, and clippings from pornographic magazines.
“If people took the time to explore ‘Father (By Mother),’ there would be no controversy,” Kahle said. “The piece is not prurient. The true meaning of the piece is located on its head, where glitter was applied with Elmer’s Glue. Every speck of glitter is a tiny mirror reflecting the observer. At end, this piece is about love, sex, birth: what we came from.”
Lurking beneath the satire, is a serious comment on the pretensions of art and the cultural exhaustion they represent. Read the entire piece here. First have fun. Then weep.