Anna Y. Germano
One of the most fascinating dimensions of art in the past, in the present, and presumably in the future, is the multiple interpretations and responses it conjures forth from those who buy it, collect it, curate it, and view it. Of the many polarizations that emerge out of this rich field of reactions, one of the most interesting, and certainly most emotional, tensions is this: Is it offensive? Or is it inspiring? Should we restrict or enable access to art that is controversial? Who is to say or determine these things? Who has the authority? Who has credibility? Who has the relevant knowledge? Censorship is based on judgment, whether implicit or explicit, and if art is about imaginatively expressing a personal perspective for the artist, then it will often contradict the assumptions of the viewers who may bring very different perspectives to their appreciation of the art. In addition, there is not a single valid reception, but rather the art work may elicit valid responses from different people who are very different in nature. Thus it is very problematic for a single small group of people to decide if certain artwork is beneficial or not, rather than leaving it up to the audience to decide its value. Of course, all exhibits make decisions based upon issues of quality or context, but the problem comes when those decisions are based on the criteria of the content being deemed offensive by an extrinsic political or moral standard specific to a certain group.
The central question especially compelling for Universities which are supposed to be devoted to free inquiry is this: when choosing what to exhibit in our University Art museums, should we be censoring the art for its content and possible community reception? The student body as well as the community should be able to approach art while suspending their assumptions, or they could fail to appreciate its innovative character. Artwork that is selected to exhibit in University Museums should not promote violence targeted at specific groups in society, a principle that I believe the vast majority of people would accept, but it should enable people to have intellectual exchange about the issues raised by the art, even if some find it offensive or troubling. Art is intended to provoke discussion and Universities are special locations that are supposed to stimulate innovative and challenging conversation. This motivation is clearly indicated when University museum administrators describe their work - “We don’t choose something because it’s racy and suggestive,” Alison Juull (collections manager and communications coordinator for university museums at The University of Iowa) said. “We try to think about what the students would be interested in and learn from and that’s part of our mission.”Case #1: The University of Virginia Bailey Art Museum - William Christenberry
University of Virginia: Bailey Art Musem, Charlottesville Virginia.
From October 19 to December 23, 2007,
multi-media artist William Christenberry held an exhibition in the Bailey Art
Musum at University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia that caused
considerable tension and controversy. William Christenberry was born in 1936
and was raised in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He spent a lot of time in rural Hale
County, Alabama where the Ku Klux Klan played a major role in the community. A
part of the Site/Possession exhibition Christenberry had at University of
Virginia was a room called the "Klan Room Tableau," which was kept behind a red
curtain in the museum providing visitors a choice to see this part of the
exhibit. The room was completely filled with drawings, paintings, sculptures,
and other artistic objects devoted to imagery of the Ku Klux Klan. According to
Andrea Douglas curator of the University of Virginia art museum, “...in creating this work, not at
all celebratory work, more a work that was a matter of catharcism, work that
he wants to put out into the world almost as an activist statement against the
Klan, against violence, against fear, against power, and the kind of impact
that that each one of those things has on our lives and how we understand
Douglas arranged for extra security for the staff and visitors in fear of any
negative misunderstandings about Christenberry’s work as actually promoting the
Klan, whether the people in question might then want to protest or defend the Klan.
As I mentioned, here we see the issue of viewers going into an exhibition having already judged its content before taking a sincere, open look at it as art and attempting to understand the artist’s perspective. Art critic Laura Parsons writes about her experience with the exhibit in her column in The Hook, Charlottesville’s weekly newspaper, “I had finally entered William Christenberry’s exhibit, “Site/Possession,” at the University of Virginia Art Museum, after being interrogated and eyed with suspicion by the museum's unsmiling guards....The show is not intended as a retrospective, but rather as an examination of how Christenberry’s Alabama roots have fueled his work for nearly 50 years.”
William Christenberry: (1936) KKK Doll
During an event that the University of Virginia Art Museum and the Quality Community Council held several months before the exhibit in October, Christenberry expressed how he “could not understand and not even today can I understand why other creative people especially visual artists...did not, did not involve themselves especially, in the south, with this subject matter.” This comment makes complete sense since the KKK has played such an influential role in American history. Not many people are comfortable with this subject, whereas Christenberry shares his experiences and memories of the KKK when he was growing up, and struggles with them through his artistic expression. Holding this event before the show was the museum’s effort to involve the community and university in a dialog for the upcoming exhibition, with the hope that an open discussion might avoid controversy following the actual exhibition’s opening. Christenberry talks about the ubiquitous activity of the Klan while he was growing up and how he grapples with his subject matter in his artwork in an attempt to transform its influence on him in positive directions.
Case #2: The
Corocoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C - Cancellation of Robert
Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment exhibition
Corcoran College of Art and Design: The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
July 1st, 1989 was supposed to be the opening date of the belated Robert Mapplethorpe’s traveling exhibition, The Perfect Moment at The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Mapplethorpe passed away of AIDS in March of that year, so it was, in fact, a memorial. The photographs that were to go on exhibit contained sexually explicit and homoerotic images. However, the director of the Corcoran, Dr. Christina Orr-Cahall, claimed such sexual images would be inappropriate for this gallery and thus forced the exhibit to be canceled. In explanation she said, “Our institution has always remained outside of the political arena, maintaining a position of neutrality on all such issues.” she said. “In a city with such a great Federal presence, this has been essential.”
Robert Mapplethorpe: Ken & Tyler, 1985
The decision not to show Mapplethorpe’s photographs caused uproar in the art community. June 30th, the day before the initial exhibition opening, members of the art community and Washington D.C. gathered for a demonstration outside of the Corcoran Gallery. One of the speakers, Ruth Bolduan, chairman of the Coalition of Washington Artists, stressed a perspective that involving “think(ing) it is an aesthetic issue and social issue. A museum is a public forum for aesthetic dialogue. In canceling the Mapplethorpe exhibition, the Corcoran has denied the people their right to make their own decisions about the merit of a work of art.”
Protesting the Corcoran’s Mapplethorpe Decision, 1989
People of the public were not given the opportunity to say whether or not Mapplethorpe’s photographs were beautiful or too sexual, offensive or inspiring. Instead, the museum conveyed that they were obscene and would be offensive for the audience, such that the directors of The Corcoran were acting in our best interests by preventing the exhibit from being shown: “By withdrawing from the Mapplethorpe exhibition, we, the board of trustees and the director, have inadvertently offended many members of the arts community, which we deeply regret. Our course in the future will be to support art, artists and freedom of artistic expression." Having received such harsh criticism from the art community, The Corcoran’s attempt to extend an apology wasn’t sufficient, since, according to Donald Lipski, a Brooklyn sculptor, “It doesn't address the main point, their understanding that they did something wrong. The point is not “offending” people. I wasn’t offended by what they did; I was deeply disappointed and saddened.”
Case #3: College of William and Mary, Muscarelle Museum of Art- The Century Project: Child pornography?
Photographer Frank Cordelle, held an
exhibit in the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary in
March 2009. The exhibit, The Century Project, contained portraits of
naked women between the moment of birth and one hundred years of age. A
personal statement from each woman was displayed by their photograph. Most of the
women photographed had been assaulted in some manner. This exhibit raised
questions of whether or not the photographs of nude children were considered
child pornography. Some looked past the nudity and instead looked at the beauty of each
woman and her story which they had decided to share with the public.
A student at the time of the exhibit, Aly Cockerill said that “someone who’s searching for something that’s wrong with this exhibit will potentially find one, but that’s not why people who are interested came out … they are interested in the greater message of this exhibit, want to understand women, and want to understand humanity on a certain level. To boil it down and say it’s pornographic material no matter what is close-minded and doesn’t help our society grow in any way.” Cockerill raises a good point about comprehending artwork. Like the other two exhibits at UVA and The Corcoran, viewers must go in with no preconceived judgment of what they are going to see but to look at show with an open mind. If people can put aside what society has taught them to be “bad,” and look at the photographs themselves and the stories that go along with them, then perhaps they would see the photographs in a different light, and through them, see society and their own lives in new ways. Going along side with this idea, blogger monikawithak wrote, “It changed my life. Such a wonderful concept: looking at the glory and beauty of women vulnerable in appearance, but quite open to anything and strong from what they have experienced. Women who have been through so many different things, letting down their guard to tell their stories with the help of the camera.” These people saw the show as more than the photographs themselves but the stories behind them.
Jin Sook, 41
Foundation Blog, opposing the show, posted an article, First Prostitutes and Porn Stars, Now
W&M Hosts Child Porn Photographer. The article talks about how Cordelle rationalizes the pictures of naked minors as not overtly sexual
and thus legal. Cordelle claims “the entire female life cycle . . . doesn’t begin
at age 18” and admits that his photographs are “a valuable
tool for sociopolitical purposes.” The Family Foundation responded to these claims, disagreeing by stating:
Huh? Here’s another irony: Aren’t liberals supposed to be “for the children”? How is this anything but exploitative and damaging to children? Which is the brazen side here and why should parents unknowingly have their money used for an admitted political purpose? Of course it’s difficult to attack such a cryptic political purpose, no matter how bizarre or exploitative. So we’d like to know what exactly about female minors imparts a political statement that he needs to display naked photos of them? What is W&M and its administration trying to say — or sanction?
A former professor at the college, John Foubert, expressed how he thought that photographs of children younger than eighteen years of age were inappropriate. He believed there were better ways that the college could spend their money than supporting such controversial and provocative exhibitions.
The University of Virginia Bailey Art Museum made an effort to involve its students and community in discussion about the upcoming exhibit by William Christenberry, mainly focusing on the Klan Room Tableau. This provided the public an opportunity to ask the artist questions regarding his works' content, methods, thought process, and motivations. Holding this event months in advance prior to the exhibit allowed the community to be aware of the material that was going to be Christenberry’s exhibit and to participate in a rich conversation about its significance. The result was a successful exhibit. In marked contrast, the Corcoran Gallery of Art did not even give their community an option to view Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography exhibit, much less discuss it, before they canceled it due to the “explicit” content. The Corcoran was highly criticized for this decision. Similar to the issue of nudity in Mapplethorpe’s photographs, The Muscarelle showed an exhibit that contained nude photographs of females ranging in age from zero to one hundred. It doesn’t evoke racial discomfort, or raging homosexuals, but rather raised the questionability of child pornography. Although there was discomfort with the level of what some people felt was inappropriateness, the exhibit had many women leaving with a new attitude towards their body and the beauty of women.
Art provokes intense thoughts and equally intense emotions. When we are dealing with exhibits such as these, with their particularly challenging content, we can see how it can also bring people together to discuss the pros and cons of such artwork, and through it, to find a new forum for social exchange and sharing. In the process, we find many challenging questions and ideas come into a public discussion and thus raise the possibility for the reconciliation of differences or at least of greater understanding. Censuring such art only reinforces difference, rewards ignorance, and creates negative emotions.
 Matt Wettengel, “University of Iowa exhibit’s controversy interpreted at
Iowa State,” Iowa State Daily, December 1, 2010,
 William Christenberry, “William Christenberry: Site Possession,” Kicks
Off Yearly long Exploration of Southern Influences in American Identity” UVA
Today Video, UVA Today. http://www.virginia.edu/uvatoday/videogallery.php
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William Christenberry, University of Virginia Media Player.
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