"SO WHAT'S the show about?" someone asked me a few days after I got back from the press preview for the American Visionary Art Museum's 11th annual mega-exhibition.

"What isn't it about?" I replied.

I wasn't just being flip either. The show's very title, "Race, Class, Gender Does Not Equal Character," defines itself by a negative, rather than a positive.

It's also a mouthful, I know. But as museum director Rebecca Hoffberger joked at the preview -- at least I think she was joking -- the original name was even more unwieldy: "Race, Class, Gender: Three Things That Contribute Zero to Character." Think that's bad? You could just as easily throw in sexual orientation and religion -- along with any other arbitrary classification of people that has historically given rise to intolerance by others.

All these things, however, are what the show's not about.

What it is about -- character, of course -- isn't so easy to nail down, except in the way that it defies the labels we try to hang on each other. Sometimes that defiance is apparent in the art, as in the work of Ned Cartledge, whose "KKK David in His Elegant Night Shirt" satirizes racism (or, more specifically, the playing of the "race card" in politics). So, too, the work of the anonymous artist whose mixed-media constructions mock the casual, there-goes-the-neighborhood approach to real estate bigotry.

At other times, the show's themes percolate up through the artist, not the art. Unlike some museums, Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum is one place where you would do well not to skip the wall labels. Take Adrian Kellard's bio, for example: A gay man who died of AIDS-related causes in 1991, Kellard created large-scale painted reliefs with titles such as "The Baptism of Christ" and "O Holy Night" out of pine boards that he sliced with an X-Acto knife. Emulating ecclesiastical woodcuts, yet with a cartoony aesthetic, they're stunningly beautiful images. Still, their generic religious subject matter would seem to have little to do with the show's theme. His life, on the other hand, or rather his homosexuality, would. While it may have been used by bigots to define him, it did not define his character.

In a similar fashion, one might question the inclusion of Rosie O'Donnell's work. (Yes, that Rosie O'Donnell.) The former stand-up comic and talk-show host started making art as a response to the attacks of 9/11, and some of her collage-based pieces (e.g., "Nelson Mandela") do manage to rub up against the themes of liberation and universal peace, love and happiness. I can't help wondering, though, whether her celebrated lesbianism is the real reason she's in the show, particularly when you hold up her pleasantly uplifting but unexceptional imagery (and her downright embarrassing poetry) against some of the wonderful -- and, dare I say it, more authentic -- art in this show.

As for the wonderful stuff, it includes three whimsical textile applique pieces by Chris Roberts-Antieu, whose comiclike mini-narrative, "Recovery of Roy" -- that's Roy Horn, as in Siegfried and Roy -- includes an unlikely apology by Montecore, the white tiger who mauled the famous showman in 2003. Both this and another piece by the same artist called "Table Manners" touch upon one of the show's significant sub-themes, that of civility. If we all made more of an effort to treat each other with simple good manners, it seems to say, the world would be a much better place.

Other powerful pieces include the paintings of Eddie Kurushima and Henry Sugimoto, both Japanese American artists who were interned at the Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas during World War II and whose highly personal works -- and in this museum, what isn't? -- are full of pain. Unlike the museum's "The Art of War and Peace" a few exhibitions ago, there isn't really any explicit violence here. Yet occasionally, there is a kind of subtextual brutality of the soul depicted, a spirit-crushing that comes from being made to feel worthless because of something as superficial as the color of one's skin, the configuration of one's anatomy or the contents of one's wallet. Violence, both the physical and the psychological kind, arises from hatred and anger, which have their roots in fear, which grows in the soil of ignorance.

If there is one central lesson to this show, it is that we are all one.

That idea of our common humanity, despite our differences, is perhaps best expressed in an installation by Linda St. John, who has covered two walls of one room with hundreds of handmade pipe-cleaner dolls representing the popular, well-off and pretty girls the artist says she always wanted to be like when she was growing up poor in southern Illinois.

Looking down from their perches, St. John's "900 Skinny Girls" gaze, unironically, upon a display case containing "100 Dirt Yard Girls," a crowded herd of raggedy dolls whose quite literally lower status could call to mind a group of evacuees from New Orleans's impoverished Ninth Ward. Or anywhere else in the world where inequality exists. They, naturally, stand in for those of us (key word: us) who have nothing.

Nothing, that is, except their character.

RACE, CLASS, GENDER DOES NOT EQUAL CHARACTER -- Through Sept. 3 at the American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Hwy., Baltimore. 410-244-1900. www.avam.org. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10 to 6. $11; children, seniors and students $7.

Public programs associated with the exhibition include:

Oct. 22 from 11 to 1 -- "Trashy Women." Sally Willowbee presents a slide lecture about women who make art from trash. Reservations required. 410-244-1900.

Linda St. John's "100 Dirt Yard Girls," in case in foreground, stands beneath her "900 Skinny Girls," the popular girls she always wanted to be like.Ned Cartledge's "KKK David in His Elegant Night Shirt."