Amid the deluge of stories about the post-election meltdown of the right, last night we saw an epically demented manifestation of conservative America’s mental breakdown. In an eleven-minute video, the fruitbat right-wing radio personality Glenn Beck donned a tweed jacket, then switched to a painter’s smock and a red beret that made him look like a geezer Guardian Angel. He carried a pipe, and spoke in an accent that bounced back and forth between French, English, and his own American. And then Glenn Beck made a piece of art.
Inspired by the news story of Michael D’Antuono’s long-hidden painting of a crucified Barack Obama finally emerging on the walls of a Boston community college art gallery, Beck set out to make a point about censorship and art and filth and liberals by using his own waste and trace amounts of satire. The segment started with a series of riffs: railing at people who portray nudes, then 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. He mentioned Picasso’s Blue period, and carried on for awhile about painting out men’s “ding-a-lings.” And then Beck deliriously announced that he’d been working on a work of art of his own, “for quite a while — all day.”
Ambling over to a tall pedestal, he lovingly cupped his hands around a jar filled with yellow liquid. He announced that he’d been drinking a lot of water all day, that this was a jar of his own urine. He offered that this was his “yellow period,” and told us it’s “a warm piece of me,” again seeming overinterested and excited, fondling the jar with both hands. Then he had an assistant bring him a little plastic figurine. It was a kind of dashboard Obama, maybe in a smock. Beck took the figure between his fingers, held it over the jar, and dropped it into the urine.
However, the little Obama did not sink. The moment was hilarious: Beck tried to push it down a few times, splashing himself in the process. Looking around, he asked for “a stick.” He then walked over and got his paintbrush, and tried to submerge the figure a few times. It still floated. Wouldn’t go down. Flustered, flummoxed, he announced, “We should have tried this before.” Not knowing what to do, he screwed the lid on and christened it “Flobama.” He then unveiled a label that had a different title on it, Obama in Pee Pee. The price was $25,000. He announced that if this work were to sell on eBay, he’d do one of Michelle Obama and her “little abs,” and put it in a Dos Equis beer bottle. (The auction would be removed by eBay in midstream, though it continued on Beck’s own site.)
But is it art, this potty spectacle of a white man ridiculing the work of black artist Andrès Serrano, placing a black man in a jar of urine (while also attacking the work of black artist Chris Ofili as an aside)? 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 obviously has several screws loose; he can’t think his work through, and doesn’t know when to stop. But if he concentrates, rounds up all the many nudes he disapproves of from art history, and covers them up with paint in ways that he finds more appropriate, I would love to see a show of these paintings and write about it. His blackboards that demonstrate the ways in which Democrats are Maoists or Communists, or prove that Obama is a Nigerian set on overthrowing the United States, are true masterpieces of paranoid-delusion, works that I would gladly see in any museum. Beck is an artist; just not in the way he thinks he is.