Two stories from the past week have gotten me thinking about the role of art over Western history and in the contemporary world. The two stories in question are about the National Portrait Gallery's removal of an exhibit after a complaint by Catholic League President William Donohue and an installation of a digital version of DaVinci's famous "Last Supper" in the Park Avenue Amory in New York City.

One story, a beat down of the avant-garde. The other, recovery of a classic. Which story is a better model for culture? 

Answer: both.

First, the avant-garde beat down. I'm not primarily interested in the reason for the beat down, though that is a larger debate worth pursuing elsewhere. I'm more interested in the power of art to generate reflection. I guarantee that had William Donohue said nothing, only a few thousand people would know about David Wojnarowicz's work. But now a lot of people are up in arms about this "Catholic censorship" thing, and the art itself will receive a great deal more attention. The Transformer Gallery has picked up the controversial video. Friends of Wojnarowicz can rejoice that he will gain notoriety much like Robert Mapplethorp.

The digital show of DaVinci fascinates me: it's allowing a "laptop generation" (so named in the NY Times story) to witness DaVinci's masterpiece in a way that most could not unless they traveled to a monastery in Milan. By any measure, "The Last Supper" is a classic. I understand the word "classic" in theologian David Tracy's sense, paraphrased below.

A classic is a person, text, event, melody, or symbol encountered in some cultural experience that bears a certain excess of meaning as well as certain timelessness; it confronts and provokes us in our present horizon with the feeling that something else might be the case.  (Paraphrase of The Analogical Imagination here)

The only way to tell a classic is with time. All attempts at art, I think, aim at being classic; most fall short. What makes classics is the very fact that they capture what people are thinking about, or need to think about. There is, then, a natural affinity between art and heresy or blasphemy, if we understand these terms as describing what's outside the usual conventional wisdom about ultimate things like God, love, suffering, life, and so on. Art wants to challenge people, get them outside their natural tendencies to follow the herd. Michelangelo certainly did this with his crazy naked people all over the ceiling of a church

Art, then, is a kind of corollary or counterpoint to cultural norms, whether they emerge from a church, a political system, or even a passing trend. If art provokes people to think about what people in a society are doing, and it continues to do that over time and over generations and even over centuries, it is classic.