Glenn Beck, it turns out, is more than a chalkboard-happy provocateur — he's also an astute student of provocative contemporary art, or at least artistic provocation. Earlier this week, Beck put out a video to show his displeasure with a controversial Michael D'Antuono painting of President Obama wearing a crown of thorns, his arms out as if he's being crucified. At times sporting a beret and talking in a French accent, Beck says that while he may find the painting offensive, he respects the artist's freedom to paint it, as enshrined in the Constitution. To drive his point home, he takes an Obama bobblehead and drops it in a big jar filled with a yellow liquid he says is his urine — a reference to Immersion (Piss Christ), the infamous 1987 photograph by artist Andres Serrano of a plastic crucifix suspended in a jar of urine. Watch:
Beck later tried to auction off his masterpiece on eBay (asking price: $25,000; bidding price before being yanked by eBay for the attempted sale of a bodily fluid: $11,300). And even though he now maintains the jar contained beer, not urine, his detour into satire provoked quite a back-and-forth:
Beck's work of "performance art for the terminally stupid" is "supposed to be a lame parody of Andres Serrano's Piss Christ — without the art or the creativity," says Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs. "This is how far the loony Right has devolved, and it's a pretty nasty sight."
"Perhaps this joke was not the timeliest ever," but if "the whole point is to mock people who worship Obama like a god," to "rankle them and make them upset," then mission accomplished, says Jim Treacher at The Daily Caller. "Liberals can tolerate anything except dissent."
But isn't there something more to Beck's presentation than just ticking off the Left? Serrano's NEA-supported Piss Christ may be an enduring sore point for some conservatives, but it's still enshrined in the academy as a lesser work of High Art. And between the crucified Obama painting Truth and comedian Jamie Foxx's recent description of Obama as "our lord and savior," Beck had some pretty good supporting material for his Serrano homage. "The presentation, while infantile, is also surprisingly amusing," says Aisha Harris at Slate. In fact, Beck, in his own way, makes essentially the same point that Serrano did in defending Piss Christ: People may not like it, but unpopular works are protected by what Beck calls his only piece of "celestial art," the U.S. Constitution. "Obama in Pee Pee, then, is, like Piss Christ and Truth, simply Beck's way of expressing himself through 'art.'"
Um, really? asks Jerry Saltz at New York. "Is it art, this potty spectacle of a white man ridiculing the work of black artist Andres Serrano, placing a black man in a jar of urine"— only moments after chastely "painting a thong on a print of a Rubens (whom he calls the 'butt-crack guy') and adding a sweater and jeans to a Lucian Freud"? Saltz continues:
Well, as Beck sneers, "Art is in the eye of the beholder." Yep, and so is pornography, which this thing seems closer to: It's just as canned, conventional, predictable, and badly produced, and stars a bad actor. As art, Beck's Obama in Pee Pee looks rinky-dink and silly. More like a party favor or a tchotchke. Boring bad art, plain and simple. Terrible sculpture, regardless of politics. Yet Beck's goody-two-shoes censuring of the Rubens and Freud nudes has something truly possessed and bizarre about it. A fear of sex this latent but pronounced makes for a fantastically charged visual paradox. Plus, Beck's brushwork is so flippant and slapdash that it somehow goes well on the reproductions — even adds to them.... Beck is an artist; just not in the way he thinks he is.