Knowing It When You See It Open Thread
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.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 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.
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.