You thought Americans had forgotten how to be shocked?
You thought Americans could never get excited about art -- really excited?
You thought the only place people got excited -- really excited -- about art was Russia, where they stick poets in jail?
Drop around to the Hirshhorn's huge "Content" show, demonstrating world art trends for the 10 years the museum has existed. The comment sheets are stacking up as never before -- and the exhibit still has seven weeks to run, closing Jan. 7.
"It is surely the end of civilization and culture," writes a visitor from San Jose, Calif. "It's a blasphemy against beauty and humanity. I am shocked. The only problem with such shock is that the next time I won't be. I will become more and more immune to ugliness instead of 'seeing' it as they want us to . . . "
From Nebraska: "What I have seen makes me fear our beloved land is much in trouble. I was greatly disturbed."
From Maryland: " . . . exceedingly depressing . . . "
And these: "a shocking and disgusting experience . . . ," " . . . you embarrass me and infuriate me and insult my intelligence . . . ," "the worst mess I have ever seen in any museum . . . ," "to see a nude man with blood all over him is NOT art . . . "
Some sound merely disappointed, politely hoping the situation will improve. A Hawaii viewer writes, "I'm sure there are things that could be uplifting and artistic . . . it may be the result of the drug scene, but there are millions of us who are not part of that."
Others sound ready to march. An army officer from Virginia roars, "As a taxpayer and citizen of this democracy I am incensed at some of the trash on display here masquerading as art . . . I will contact my congressional representatives about your budget."
Another roused citizen: "Such trash! If this is what is being done with our tax dollars I want my money back."
As it happens, the "Content" show was paid for with private money, according to Hirshhorn public affairs director Sidney Lawrence, though the museum does get some federal funding.
He also pointed out that some comments are as enthusiastic as the others are appalled.
Writes a tourist from Denmark: "I always thought of American modern art as being very superficial and not very serious, but you have convinced me of the opposite. Very good indeed."
And more: "especially enjoyed the Content exhibit . . . ," "Stupendous! . . . ," "Gutsy . . . ," "Congratulations -- the most exciting show I have ever seen . . . "
Lawrence himself suggested the notice posted at the entrance, warning that the show "includes some works that some parents may feel are unsuitable for young children. Parental discretion is advised." He would have used the word "frightening," he said, instead of the rather judgmental "unsuitable," but the final wording was a bureaucratic decision.
The outrage, if outrage there be, doesn't come out when people are actually viewing the show, however. They talk in whispers if they talk at all, though as a guard, Eleanor Ridge, remarked, "They will look at the Bluestone Circle" -- Richard Long's heavy rectangles of stone as big as your arm scattered in an orderly but basically random way over a 12-by-12 stretch of floor -- "and they'll say, 'That's art? I can do that!' "
This is something you hear at any exhibit of contemporary art.
Guard Charlene Miles said people may be puzzled and need directions for the hands-on pieces. One hut-shaped work requires that four people pull at the same time on handles to raise a series of curtains and reveal what is inside. What is inside is a red geometric figure interpreted by some as a swastika or an iron cross, by others as just a pleasing abstraction.
"I tell them the whole idea is to pull together, to work together," she said.
Apparently the most controversial piece is a triptych of blown-up photos by Hermann Nitsch showing his street-theater event in Austria. Nude men, spattered with blood, pose among commercially slaughtered animals in what seems to be an abattoir.
"People don't talk out loud," Miles observed. "They come and they look and keep on going through."
Two gray-haired women, thoroughly examining every piece in every room, arrived at the Nitsch photos. They peered at the title, "Orgies-Mysteries Theater," and the artist's comment.
"We're supposed to lose ourselves in this," one woman explained. "To find our primal natures."
They studied the piece a long moment.
"We work so hard to bury it," she mused. "We come here and we're supposed to let it all out?"
"Remember," said her companion, "when New York was full of Happenings? All right, this is a Happening."
So saying, they passed on to the next work. They didn't look back.