washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Eugene Robinson

Art vs. the Church Lady

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, April 12, 2005; Page A21

Art is by definition artificial, yet it tells truths. Here in Washington we're fortunate that a truth-telling art exhibit has arrived like a blast of fresh air, just when the pall of religiosity hanging over the city was reaching gas-mask stage.

I'm not talking about religion, as in the moving pageant we witnessed in Rome; religion is an authentic expression of the human spirit. I'm talking about religiosity, the ostentatious display of ostensible piety.


(Courtesy The Baltimore Museum Of Art)

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The bad air is thickest on Capitol Hill, where House Majority Leader Tom DeLay casts himself as maximum theocrat and chief scold, a cross between Cotton Mather and the Church Lady from "Saturday Night Live." I can't decide whether his bombast over the Terri Schiavo affair was designed to change the subject from his own ethical troubles or to take decidedly un-Christian advantage of what a GOP aide chirpily called "a great political issue" for Republicans. Probably both.

In any event, it backfired. When politicians who play to the religious right seek to impose a Scripture-based code of conduct on legislative and political decisions, painting their opponents as "secular" and all but calling them heathens, they sooner or later expose themselves as hypocrites.

Most Americans seem to see through all the holier-than-thou nonsense. In the Schiavo case, for example, they overwhelmingly disapproved of DeLay's sanctimonious intrusion into a family's private dilemma. And DeLay's "everybody does it" defense of his lapses -- shady dealings with lobbyists, putting his wife and daughter on the payroll to the tune of $500,000 -- mocks his claim to any sort of moral high ground.

And here's more evidence that Americans understand human nature and morality much better than DeLay and the theocrats: In record numbers -- 9,000 the first day alone -- Washingtonians and tourists alike have flocked to the National Gallery of Art to see "Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre." The gallery is within sight of the Capitol, so I assume that DeLay must avert his eyes from such a house of sin. "Montmartre" is a timely reminder that we are imperfect beings who sometimes drink and smoke and stay out waaaay too late at night, that we even do things we will regret in the morning. We forgive ourselves, though. We're only human, and most of us are willing to admit that fact.

"Montmartre" isn't so much a display of art as an attempt to re-create a time and place: the end of the 19th century and the steep slopes of a hill on the northern edge of Paris. Montmartre was a neighborhood of bars and dance halls and brothels, an incubator and playpen for great artists, a kind of beta test for the social technology that drives the modern cult of celebrity. It was what Greenwich Village or Haight-Ashbury were to become for later cultural revolutions.

Its most faithful chronicler was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whom those familiar with the post-Impressionists will recall as the little guy -- his legs had been broken in childhood and his growth stunted, so he stood less than 5 feet tall.

He knew, and painted, Montmartre's torch singers, its dancing girls, its prostitutes and their "respectable" customers, rendering them with great style but also great honesty. For those who just want to celebrate the licentious, there's his Moulin Rouge poster of "La Goulue" (The Glutton), a famous dancer who was limber enough to kick off the top hats of the gentlemen who came to see her perform. For those who prefer moral lessons with their art, there's his painting "Medical Inspection," in which two prostitutes line up for one of the periodic examinations they had to undergo to work in the trade; their degradation is enough to send anybody to church.

Works by Degas, Picasso, Van Gogh -- who painted a glass of absinthe -- and other great artists who were drawn to Montmartre are included, along with photographs, an early film loop of a famous dancer, and artifacts from the famed Montmartre clubs. The effect is of total immersion in a demimonde that was full of both sin and salvation and that helped shape modern culture for better and for worse.

It's possible to forget, at least for an hour, that you're in a city where cynical politicians have turned religion and morality -- which are private issues, matters of the soul -- into holier-than-thou public display.

If I were an art critic, I might ask whether the nation's signature art museum should be spending its resources on a guaranteed crowd-pleaser such as Toulouse-Lautrec rather than showing us something new. But given the atmosphere in Washington, I'd like to buy the curators a drink.

Hold the absinthe, though.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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