Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Knowing It When You See It Open Thread

"Obscene" art is making headlines again. This time in Australia. From artinfo.com:

What’s behind the curtain? A painting city officials and the Orange public gallery have dubbed “for adults only,” according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

The piece, You Big Hole, was created by Jirrawun Girls, a group of young Aboriginal women, and consists of four panels containing graffiti and swear words.

The gallery has used a large black curtain to cover the work in response to complaints made to the Orange City Council and upon approval by the city's general manager and mayor.

A warning sign now accompanies the exhibition, stating that children need parental guidance and that visitors should ask gallery staff for a view of the painting.
I've looked on the gallery's website and scoured the web, but can't find an image of the disputed work. If you find one, please do let me know.

The issue of where the line should be drawn with regard to open access to "obscene" art has been discussed a good deal in my circle lately. Good friends of mine with a gallery had been asked by their landlord to cover their windows because passersby could see a graphic depiction of an orgy in their space. The exchange came close to bordering on demands that would have meant censorship, but eventually that was averted through a patient response by my friends.

Still, when we're talking "art," what guidelines should be used to decide when warnings or (eek) curtains are appropriate in a public space? [Yes, I'm gonna drag out and dust off that old quote again:] Infamously,
Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote in his short concurrence in the obscenity case of Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964) that "hard-core pornography" was hard to define, but that "I know it when I see it" [a view he later recanted as simply untenable]. Of course, he's talking about truly obscene hard-core materials (arguably inappropriate for anyone, or so the case was supposed to decide), but does the same guildeline serve when considering what's only "obscene" in that it may offend some adults but is widely considered inappropriate for children? Even as one who quotes frequently Genet's sense that the only two subjects worthy of a great artist are death and sex, I have to admit that there are images I feel my nieces and nephews should be older before seeing, and as a gallerist that same consideration extends to the children of other people.

Many galleries will put up signs on their doors if the work on exhibit is of a mature or graphic nature, giving parents fair warning before they enter, which seems a good balance. But the idea that a work needs to be covered and is then viewable only upon request strikes me as more perverse than anything it could possibly depict. I don't know if the work by the Jirrawun Girls is installed in a place where it's impossible to warn viewers before they happen upon it or not, but I think the gallery's solution to the complaints is unfair to the artists and to the public. I appreciate that they wanted to keep it in the exhibition, but the curtain suggests a rather backhanded form of support for the artists (I wouldn't want to track down a staff member to ask to view the piece). On the other hand, it has lead to me wanting to know more about their work, so....

But where is that line? Another gallery with huge windows onto the street recently exhibited a series of male nudes. The street is is frequently travelled my many children each day. I think that was OK. The nudes were individual figures and sex was not implied in any way, but at what point between sitting there naked and engaging in behavior inappropriate for children to view would a work necessitate a barrier to viewing? If a man and woman (or two of either) were sitting naked together? If they were touching each other? If they were clearly aroused? If a solo figure was clearly aroused or arousing him/herself? Where's the line?

Some folks draw it at nudity. Others at certain antaomical states of engagement or...er, let's leave it at that for now. Of course we can let whether anyone complains or not serve as a guideline, but by then the context of the exhibition has shifted, so I think it's better to decide before anyone complains and stick with your decision. But that's just me...I'm prudish AND stubborn. Consider this an open thread.


Anonymous bnon said...

I think your fear of people getting angry at you should dictate what you exhibit that can be seen from the street, and one's principles shouldl dictate what can be seen in the gallery after parents have read a disclaimer. For example, if you think sex and death are the great subjects, then I would think you would draw no lines at all inside the gallery--after the disclaimer. I have kids, and this set-up would be fine with me.

9/12/2006 09:49:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Considering some of my paintings, this is one of those interesting subjects for me. I've got two kids, currently nine and seven. They're old enough to know that people don't get naked all the time, and that being naked is somewhat shameful in our culture; but they're not old enough to really understand what nudity can imply about sex.

I've always been very open artistically with my kids. My paintings are hung up in the house. My drawings are around here and there. My subject is common enough that when I started a painting recently, my daughter asked, "Is this going to be another painting of Mom's ass?"

The flip side of being open this way (and being casual about nudity within the family, although we're hardly naturalists) is that our kids do have to interact with and be integrated with the larger culture. I may not like how Americans handle sex in general, and I may not agree with the culture as a whole, but I can't ignore the fact that my children have no choice but to engage with our culture. I can lean one way or another, and hope to influence my kids so they're as likely to be mentally-sexually healthy (in my estimation) as possible, but I don't
have full control.

It's therefore difficult to address sexuality in art. I tend to think of censorship as being goverment-imposed; other editing, such as by landlords or newspapers or what have you, isn't truly censorship, because it's not official, it's not the law of the land. It's just how some people choose to approach things.

Thus to discuss the question of those orgy drawings being visible through the gallery windows, for example, can be very complex. As Americans we have the right to free expression; we do not have the right to not be offended. And yet that doesn't mean we should purposely go around provoking people just because we can.

I know the images you're talking about in this case, and they were quite graphic. Potter Stewart would've been pretty clear on them. I wouldn't want to have to explain them to my kids, just like I didn't like having to hurry them past the brightly colored DVDs in the store window in the Village. Not because I don't want them exposed to such things; just because it's so challenging to try to find the language to explain them in a way children can understand.

My approach, then, is to say that we shouldn't make excuses for our art; at the same time, though, we should be sensitive to the feelings of others. As artists, part of the job description can be to provoke people and make them think; but if you've alienated and annoyed people, you probably haven't done your job.

9/12/2006 10:12:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

Black curtains and warning signs are the best possible publicity a show can have. If I were an artist, I'd insist that my gallery put them up at every one of my exhibitions.

Here's an idea. After multiple layers of black curtains and warning signs, the viewer has to go into a booth to look at the work, and when they open the final curtain there's a mirror. Has that been done?

9/12/2006 11:44:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

Good friends of mine with a gallery had been asked by their landlord to cover their windows because passersby could see a graphic depiction of an orgy in their space.

If the landlords were smart, they would have simply charged your friends higher rent while the orgy show was on. Then it wouldn't have been censorship, just extortion :)

9/12/2006 11:48:00 AM  
Blogger Joseph Barbaccia said...

I'd love to have a show that the "local authorities" declared "obscene." Great marketing!

9/12/2006 03:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Am I the only here who found porn mags by the age of 8 (at my uncle's house), actually depicting orgies, but who actually never felt harmed by it?

Mind you I come from east european origins (czech) so that certainly plays in the balance (and the fact that 70's porn was more hippy and cool than about the soiling perversity, genderpolitic-sick and violence of more recent stuff).

But you know sex is an uneasy topic. We're not all getting the same amount, we're not all able to even enjoy it, so because of this umbalanced education we are each on our own, some being promiscuous very early, others being naive til their late days.

So let's draw the line of obscenity then... I'd say 80 per cent shows a penis in erection. Penis is such a taboo. What's so wrong with penis?

Still at that point you can put the warning, which I find good for kids because I really do think that a kid is better to find porn in their uncle closet themselves then being directed towards it.
Sex is just so much about self-initiation, you know?

But if an adult scream because of simple nudity or slight eroticism
than don't bother. People use the term "respect" when they are not able themselves to respect people who think differently from them.

By the way, at Toronto AGO they are showing the Couch film by Warhol with homosexual sex. Of course they warned the audience but they didn't put a curtain.
You see some guy blowing another guy while others are in front laughing and talking. So what? Why give such an importance to sex when they are so many things going wrong in this world?


Cedric Caspesyan

I LOVE that curtain at the last John Waters (wow..an artist name with a real S at the end..how possible?) show. When you opened it (a soundtrack was coming from behind it), you knocked yourself against a black wall. Unrelated with topic, that was "Faux Video Room" (2006)

9/12/2006 05:45:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Am I the only here who found porn mags by the age of 8 (at my uncle's house), actually depicting orgies, but who actually never felt harmed by it?

Cedric, don't be so sure you weren't harmed. Studies have shown that children who are exposed to pornography have lifelong spelling problems. Some of them even compulsively add the letter "s" to the ends of artists' names.

9/12/2006 06:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Todd W. said...

Simple rule of thumb would be leave the control in parents' hands. In most cases any theoretical wonder at what is offensive and what is not is just posturing, in my opinion. If there is any question at all, do what you can to leave that decision to the parent and keep it out of view of anyone who hasn't deliberately chosen to view after being fairly warned.

Having said that, there is a grat deal of advertising out there that is publically available and virtually unavoidable that would fall into this category, but just because someone else isn't giving parents a chance to guide their children's viewing material doesn't mean you should disregard the issue too.

Putting the art behind the curtain is certainly not a big deal to me and I think it stretches credulity to think that such an act is worse than what could be behind it.

To bring talk of rights into it, as a rule, focuses on selfish impulses rather than focusing on our collective responsibilites to one another. this world would be a better place with that rule of thumb.

9/12/2006 07:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

True or False

Shock value?
Cultural tourism?
Curatorial taste or something else?

(More and more art and museums are called upon to justify their existence. But at the end of the day anything goes if you can sell it for a $1,000. Another fundraiser anyone?)

Is art a substitute for religion or spirituality?
Are museums babysitters, political soapboxes or therapists?

(Just read the NY Times and The Village voice and you will have the answer.)

I saw a few velvet ones at the Bronx Museum years ago. Needless to say I never went back. Miss Block are you listening? Purple velvet. Check the storage.


9/13/2006 10:32:00 AM  
Blogger artless_protagonist said...

There are images of the works on the Sherman Galleries website.


9/17/2006 08:26:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

many thanks artless protagonist!

I see where the words in the painting are impolite, but they're tamer than one hears on the average grade school playground, so I'm a bit confused myself about the gallery's response. Values change per community, but I think a posted warning would be sufficient and that the curtain is overkill.

9/18/2006 08:21:00 AM  

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