by Chris Potter
I've often thought of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's editorial page as a form of performance art: Reading it is like watching a performance by Karen Finley ... except when it's time to simulate the smearing around of fecal matter, the creators use newspaper ink instead of chocolate.
Even so, I never thought of the Trib's editorial page as a place to find art criticism. Until today, with the publication of this rather singular piece of journalism.
Headlined "A slip and a slap at the Carnegie," the unsigned editorial denounces the Carnegie for the marketing of its current exhibit, Paul Thek: Diver.
With this exhibit, the editorial argues, "The Carnegie Museum of Art obviously has forgotten who bakes its biscotti and caffes its cappuccino, so to speak. For the shot-and-beer crowd, that means Pittsburgh's supposedly pre-eminent gallery for all things art has forgotten who butters its bread."
Once you're done being dazzled by the Joycean wordplay here -- "caffes its cappuccino"? -- you'll note the characterisitcally Tribbish tone. On the one hand, it affects to be speaking for us dumb yinzers, who just like art if it's got pretty "kellers" n'at. On the other hand, the paper's real gripe is with cultural institutions who ignore the demands of wealthy elites -- the people who "butter its bread."
Because after a couple paragraphs of mocking the concept of "avant-garde art" ("sane people would call it 'rank,'" we're told), we get to what really bugs the Trib about the exhibit:
[W]hat's even more tasteless is that for one of the billboards used to promote the retrospective, the Carnegie chose a Thek work that features the phrase "Afflict the Comfortable, Comfort the Afflicted" in yellow paint surrounded by a sea of purple.
Wait a minute ... yellow and purple ... that sounds familiar ... where have I seen that combination of colors together before? Hmmm ...
Oh, noes! Somebody get Glenn Beck on the line pronto.
But of course, the Trib doesn't need a chalkboard to see the dread hand of socialism here.
Thek created this particular work in the latter years of his life, as he was dying of AIDS. But the expression "Afflict the Comfortable, Comfort the Afflicted," the Trib duly notifies us, has its origins in a saying by a humorist Finley Dunne. It was intended, the Trib says, to warn "against some newspapers' proclivity to misuse their power."
The Trib then adds: "[T]he phrase has been roundly misemployed -- interpreted literally -- by liberal media types and their oftentimes socialist acolytes."
Hmmm ... newspapers that abuse their own power? You don't say. I can see why a paper owned by Richard Mellon Scaife wouldn't want me to interpret such a warning literally. If you did that, after all, you might suspect that the publisher could be using his paper's editorial page to settle a personal grievance.
For lo! That "afflict the comfortable" business is, it seems, disrespecting wealthy benefactors ... like the ancestors of Mr. Scaife himself!
The editorial denounces the museum for an ad campaign that "arrogantly backhand[s] the very benefactors who make the Carnegie Museum of Art possible today."
"Museum managment should feign no surprise if Mr. Carnegie's philanthropic heirs slap back," the editorial concludes.
Whew! Lucky thing the Thek exhibit isn't housed in the museum's Scaife galleries! (It's housed in the Heinz galleries instead -- where it can be better appreciated, one presumes, by a certain pickle heiress and other freedom-haters.)
And the Trib's own art critic wrote a straight-ahead preview of the show, noting that Thek's work can be disturbing, but exploring the artist's intentions. (This would be a good place to say that many rank-and-file Tribune-Review staffers are honest souls and good reporters. Embarrassing editorials like this are not their fault. This is me, comforting the afflicted.)
But what's really interesting about this editorial is not what it says about the museum ... but what it suggests about the Trib's ideas of philanthrophy. Apparently, the Trib believes that once you take money from a rich person, you are to consider yourself bought and sold. You are never to say anything that your benefactor -- or his heirs -- might disapprove of. When you take a check from a guy with a lot of money, in other words, you are supposed to be his bitch, forever.
That, I'm guessing, is what it means to be Dick Scaife's editorial writer. Similar rules may apply to the numerous think tanks that have been bankrolled with Scaife's money. Whether such rules should apply to a museum, however, is a matter for debate.