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ART : When Notoriety Warps Criticism : A New York reviewer claims obscenity allegations inflate artists’ reputations and affect evaluations of their work. In Laguna Beach, Mark Heresy’s controversial ‘Flags’ shows immaturity at work.

The backlash has begun. In a page-one story in the New York Times Arts & Leisure section on Nov. 25, photography critic Andy Grundberg launched a new kind of attack on the visual and performing artists involved in the National Endowment for the Arts controversy over whether “obscenity” guidelines should govern the art deemed acceptable for government funding.

Grundberg says the reputations of such artists as Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe have become inflated on account of their notoriety. He says arts reviewers are so concerned to be “politically correct"--by supporting artists attacked as pornographic by right-wingers--that aesthetic issues are being ignored.

He claims that most of the controversial artists in the news today are not “representative of the best talents in their fields.” And he complains that all the attention paid to their work “encourages artists of limited talent to take a shortcut to success by cultivating outrageousness for its own sake.”

“What is needed at this moment,” he says, “is aesthetic judgments, not political ones.”

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Oddly, Grundberg seems to think that critical standards should exist in some rarefied sphere, untainted by the facts of daily life.

But at any given time, the reason certain artists are favored and others are not is inevitably influenced by large-scale shifts in thinking--including new political awareness--and a widespread sense of what seems fresh and newsy and what doesn’t. That’s what the history of taste is all about: One man’s meat is his granddaughter’s poison.

Still, even apart from the specifics of the Mapplethorpe and Serrano affaires, these national controversies have caused all publicly exhibited images involving “challenging” subject matter to be viewed in a newly self-conscious light.

In Orange County the notorious-art problem exists on a smaller scale, but with a peculiar intensity, thanks to the double-whammy of widespread conservatism and lack of cultural savvy.

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Every time self-appointed vigilantes in the county remove a work of art intended for public view, or won’t permit it to be displayed in the first place, the media spotlight bathes the artist in a dazzling glow of defiant challenge to the fuddy-duddies of the world.

But so often, the work of art is really nothing out of the ordinary, either sexually or aesthetically: The “problem” is strictly in the blinkered eyes of the beholder. There really was no reason to get excited, either on moral or critical grounds.

Sometimes, a reviewer’s best tactic is to say nothing at all, at least until the clamor dies down.

Maybe it’s finally time to say something about Mark Heresy’s “Flag” pieces at the Laguna Art Museum (through Dec. 16). These three-dimensional flags, made from such materials as human hair, beer cans and American currency, are designed to call attention to the distinction between the patriotic idealism symbolized in the flag and the reality of rampant materialism, militarism, racism and urban despair.

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Heresy enjoyed his moment of controversy a couple of months ago, when it was reported that museum director Charles Desmarais decided to leave out one flag in the series--"Freedom of the Press,” constructed from porn magazine photos.

Desmarais responded in a “Counterpunch” article that he also left out a flag made of Christmas wrap and flashing lights, and that in any case the 19 flags in the show were enough “to give the sense of the work without unduly diverting viewer attention to the strong sexual content of ‘Freedom of the Press.’ ”

Whether or not freedom of expression was served in screening tender eyes from cut-up pictures of nudes, it sounds as though that work was no different in approach from the rest of the series. Despite the youth of the artist, who was born in 1965, the flags have an ersatz ‘60s flavor. Subtlety is not the name of the game here; this is “people’s art” with a vengeance. If you don’t immediately grasp Heresy’s numbingly literal imagery, you must have dropped in from Mars.

Unlike more sophisticated work, which is capable of provoking a range of interpretations and responses, Heresy’s flags are earnestly moralistic. They don’t examine the issues they purport to raise; they just offer simple, easy-to-digest symbols meant to operate on the same level as the knee-jerk obedience supposedly inspired by the Stars and Stripes.

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A piece called “U$A” is a flag made of dollar bills and coins, arranged in rows (stripes) and cut up to form stars. “The Melting Pot” incorporates dyed and bleached scraps of human hair. “All Men Are Created Equal” is a flag made of pink, blue and white toilet paper.

“Adolescence” offers the contrast of a toy soldier lying on his belly (remember, boys, this can happen to you!) with the leisure-time accouterments of youth that create the “fabric” of the flag: blue jeans, beer bottle shards and cigarette butts. The United States is still sending young men to fight for patriotic reasons, but this piece fails to offer more than a push-button response to the issue.

“On Edge” is built out of shards of smashed green and brown beer bottles. “Thousands of Dead Soldiers” reproduces a battlefield in miniature with insects, leaves, dirt and human hair. And so on, and on.

Somewhat more toothy than these pieces is the set of seven hanging flags made of various kinds of cheap, crassly designed fabric. “American Landscape” suggests that the real landscape of America is a pop culture fabrication, a vision of animal and “ethnic” prints, kiddie cartoon figures, shaggy acrylic pile, camouflage cloth and stupid flowers. No amber waves of grain here, no purple mountain majesties, just the bleary manufactured unreality of TV and the fake cheer of shoddy consumer goods.

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Others have said the same thing, and in not-too-dissimilar ways, but at least Heresy allows his “found” materials to speak for themselves without stage-managing them to create the kind of highly specific interpretation that hits you over the head with its message.

For the most part, Heresy’s art comes across as the handiwork of an adolescent who has just discovered that the adult world is full of lies and double-dealing. The work in the show isn’t outrageous; it’s just the output of an impatient young artist who hasn’t yet figured out how to couch passionate belief in intellectually provocative terms.


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