Monday, May 12, 2008

I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts (or An Exhibition Space's Responsibilities with Regards to Potentially Offensive Materials)

Aware of the truth in Wilde's assertion that all criticism is merely an excuse to turn the conversation to any critique's ultimate subject, the critic, I tend to lead off with a personal anecdote just to get the matter out of the way. In this instance, I'll note that I've been thinking a lot lately about of a series of photographs I selected for the upcoming Everson Museum's 2008 Biennial and the fact that their subject matter might upset some viewers. Fortunately (for me) in that instance, the museum has tons of experience in installing the biennials and will be doing what they feel best (in other words, personally I'm off the hook here).

In the gallery recently, though, we went back and forth on whether to post a notice on the doors warning visitors that one of the pieces in our Central Asian video exhibition contained "mature" material. Of course on the day that I decided the sign was overkill a mother and her 8-year-old son wandered in, just out of curiosity. The boy was fortunately immediately more intrigued by the array of headphones and monitors on the opposite side of the gallery, but clearly enthusiastic about seeing everything in the show, so I quietly let the mother know one of the videos might not be age appropriate, to which she thanked me and quickly took her son out. I still went back and forth on the warning sign though.

Last Friday's post here touched on this question tangentially (there, the offense some took at the nature of the work led protesters to shut the show down in San Francisco), but James Wagner has highlighted a case closer to New York in which the Long Beach Island Foundation for Arts & Sciences has chosen to encircle an installation with screens and post the following message:
The work within these walls may upset or offend viewers. Please use your best judgment in deciding if you wish to view the work.
James explains:

Susan Dessel's sculpture, "OUR BACKYARD: A Cautionary Tale" has been censored by its current host, the Long Beach Island Foundation for Arts & Sciences [LBIF]. She had been invited to participate in its current Artist Residency and Retreat Exhibition, titled "ART CONCEIVED SINCE SEPTEMBER 11". Support from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts (NYC) made Dessel's participation in this exhibit possible. On the eve of the show's May 3rd opening LBIF Interim Executive Director Chris Seiz told the artist that he had been advised by some LBIF members that they found the piece “offensive” and were considering ending their support of foundation. In the hours prior to the opening Dessel's installation was walled off from the rest of the gallery. Visitors who now wish to see the concealed work must first step across signage warning that them that the piece may upset or offend.

The artist has released a statement:

"OUR BACKYARD: A Cautionary Tale" was an opportunity for me to re-imagine the world as I understand it: our shared backyard. Despite the expression of dispiriting conditions found in my work, underlying it is a robust sense of hope that it might encourage viewers to consider their own role in transforming the community - local and global - through their actions and inaction.
Dessel describes LIBF’s transformation of the piece as having turned the artist's fundamental intention on its head, since it now represents our containment and continual isolation from the outside world.
The main problem with warning signs, of course, is how they frame the work before the viewer encounters it, setting up a predetermined context in which the viewer should approach it. In other words, the viewer is not permitted to make up their own mind about the work, free of the institution's instruction.

You could argue that all installation decisions, from juxtapositions, lighting, wall text, empty space around, etc. communicate the institution's instruction on how to view the work, but in the context of a "Warning" the expectation is you should approach it with your defenses up. That's unfortunate.

Perhaps most alarming about the LBIF situation is that members were considering ending their support of foundation over the matter. That they would resort to blackmail to express their objections makes me wonder why they would support an arts foundation in the first place, to be quite honest. Clearly there were less drastic means to express why the work was difficult for them. Of course, I assume members support art institutions in order to keep learning and broaden their world view. I'm a bit optimistic that way.



OpenID ericgelber said...

It is the parent's responsibility to shield their children from cultural products that may contain M for Mature material. Since there will never be an official ratings system for museums/galleries, parents might actually want to do a little bit of leg work before taking their kids to the museum or gallery. Is this too much to ask? For the most part, art that appears in museums and galleries are made by adults for adults. Parents who want their kids to get a taste of culture early in life have the responsibility of screening what their kids will see. My wife and I decided not to take our son (who was three at the time) to a sprawling exhibition at PS1 because the dark rooms, and creepy imagery and soundtracks in the video installations would have scared the shit out of him. Did we need the institution to provide warnings for us? No. I had seen the show and knew that my son would be frightened by the spectacle. This hand holding by institutions might appease lazy parents who do not want to find out about the world themselves, but who would rather have labels plastered everywhere telling them what is wrong and what is right. It does dumb down the experience of seeing art. Also, the double standard should be noted. I guarantee that a majority of children, those who live in households with televisions, see mature material, stuff with sexual innuendo and acts of violence, very early in life. Something that appears in a museum/gallery would probably be fairly tepid in comparison, when measuring its long term effects on the psyche. Maybe the population of our country wouldn’t be so susceptible to magic thinking and superstition if we dealt with reality and didn’t believe that children are better served by the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon.

5/12/2008 09:34:00 AM  
OpenID twhid said...

Howdy. To your anecdote re: the child in your gallery...

Shouldn't any aware adult know that bringing a child to an art gallery might result in that child seeing things they wouldn't want the child to see? An art gallery is an adult context. People need to understand that before bringing children to one. Do we really want to infantilize our art galleries like everything else in the US?


re: Dessel's sculpture...

WTF???? The thing isn't even remotely controversial! The artist should have flatly refused and pulled her work from the exhibition.

5/12/2008 09:39:00 AM  
Blogger Rich said...

I don't see the controversy either, especially given the smok'n hot sales of video games like GTA and the amount of antisocial content the average child is exposed to in the media. And doesn't viewing art work with a child give a parent the opportunity to discuss the creative process and artist's intent in a way that rarely happens when the kid is exposed to other potentially offensive content? However, not every parent scopes out every gallery they will take their child into beforehand, and sometimes they will walk into an exhibit that takes them by surprise. If they don't like it, or find it offensive, they can walk out.

5/12/2008 10:13:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Local control is always problematic. On the one hand, board members of an organization do need to think about protecting and promoting their institution. On the other hand, board members can be prima donnas, expecting the organization to reflect their personal vision. I guess this is a warning to organizations to think about the selection process of board members.

twid, do you really think that parents should not bring their children into art galleries? My attitude is train them young to look at and appreciate art. Make it part of their lives. An aware director, who alerts the parents of very small or very impressionable children, seems the best solution. But then, putting an X rating on your door might attract more viewers. Probably not the ones you'd really like to have, though.

5/12/2008 10:34:00 AM  
Blogger joy said...

Yeah, WTF? Why, when people see representations in the news of violence and death and destruction every single day, and it barely gets a rise out of them, do they get so bent out of shape when confronted with a reconstruction or re-purposing of such images in an art context? When this kind of thing happens, doesn't it point to the work hitting its mark all too well? that taking the image out of the news context and reinventing it in an art context somehow invests it with a far more disturbing power? So aside from the fact that the work is now weirdly framed against the artist's wishes, the other side of this tale is that she hit her mark, and then some. Art as barometer of a locale...

5/12/2008 10:38:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Shouldn't any aware adult know that bringing a child to an art gallery might result in that child seeing things they wouldn't want the child to see?

In general I agree, but in this instance the mother and child were waiting for a ride, having visited some other business in the building, and the child, seeing the headphones and monitors dragged his mom into the gallery (as a diversion while they waited, not because the mother wanted to visit the show per se).

I would agree that the response to Susan Dessel's sculpture seems surprising. The work seems poignant, but not overly graphic.

5/12/2008 10:44:00 AM  
OpenID twhid said...

twid, do you really think that parents should not bring their children into art galleries?

No. I didn't say that. They should take their kids wherever they want (bars, strip clubs, churches). But they need to be aware that an art gallery is an adult context (where there may be peepees, boobies, vagaygays, death, destruction, etc depicted) without the aid of a warning sign on the door. So yes, parents should consider all art galleries to be X-rated.


After visiting the LBIF web site I'm not surprised by their reaction. It looks more like a day camp for retirees than an arts institution.

5/12/2008 11:09:00 AM  
Blogger John Hovig said...

I don't think parents should assume any given art gallery is X-rated. As if parents need yet another thing to worry about.

But never mind children, why would I myself want to walk into "Faces Of Deconstructionism," or "Behind The Green Curtain" unwarned? I for one wouldn't get too upset if the gallery trusted me to make my own decisions on these matters.

Philosophy aside, if a work's impact might be lessened by the framing effects of an explicit warning, then could we try a polite but more vague message? "This presentation is unrated. Some viewers will not enjoy its content. If you want to know more, read this leaflet or see the front desk."

Don't get hung up on my exact words. I'm hardly a professional writer. I'm just saying I don't think a little kindness and politeness toward the viewer would kill anyone or ruin anything. Those who want to keep their minds unframed can walk in; those who want to do more "legwork" can ask the desk.

Is this a fair compromise?

5/12/2008 11:34:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

(a side note to our dear Ed, after that last post (dare I mention it?) and the crazy and emotional 103 comment discussion that followed it that I just read, I can't' believe that you can belly right back up to the bar with yet another controversial conversation.
Good for you. Dude, you got balls...and an amazing amount of dedication!)

As for this post and its topic...It's burning me up that the one last remaining bastion of free speech and commentary left here in the states is now getting attacked, censored, and diluted. Good grief, look at what has happened to journalism! Is art next?

5/12/2008 12:06:00 PM  
OpenID artphile said...

art that appears in museums and galleries are made by adults for adults

Galleries and Museums are two completely different institutions with different audiences. People who visit galleries are often people who have some knowledge of art and should be able to approach the subject matter with a mature perspective (or should be knowledgeable enough to decide not to take their child to a gallery show like the one at PS1). People who attend galleries know that from time to time work will be controversial and some galleries are mor likely to show "mature" work than others. So, yes, I agree that people should understand that work in galleries is made by adults for adults.

But a museum's mission is to serve the public. That includes adults and children. That doesn't mean that a work should be censored in any way, but curators and directors need to be sensitive to the range of visitors.

But it's also the curator's responsibility to show the work in the proper context without prejudicing the viewer before seeing the piece. To John's point, there are better ways to notify the public that some work might not be suitable for all viewers without physically screening the art. The artist should absolutely be involved in the decision to include their work and whether the notice to the public corrupts the meaning of the work.

5/12/2008 12:31:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

I'm just disappointed that I can't find the "mature" video on your Website. The Internet needs more Central Asian porn! Er, erotica. Um, mature video art.

As far as the members of LBIF considering ending their support, that's pretty much their right. That's what privately funded institutions are all about.

That's one of the reasons it's a shame that government-funded museums have become mirrors of privately funded institutions which just happen to be funded by everyone. The whole idea of government, it seems to me, is that it's a tool for pooling a group's resources to do things that can't be done individually. Preserving the best, brightest, and most powerful elements of our culture is something individuals can't be expected to do. So we form a government to do it for us. But then we don't trust the government to do its job properly and instead demand that everything be run on a for-profit basis, or that it otherwise prove its worth somehow, or we decide we're "shareholders" and start trying to micromanage government operations on an individual basis -- which is just what we were trying to avoid in the first place.

It's unfortunate. Public institutions are supposed to be shielded from this kind of bluenosed finger-wagging, but instead they're as bad, or worse, than their private counterparts. And the private institutions end up beholden to their "customers." And no one wins.

5/12/2008 12:34:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

i just purchased a bolt gun.

5/12/2008 01:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Did we need the institution to provide warnings for us? No. I had seen the show and knew that my son would be frightened by the spectacle."

Well, obviously if the parent has already seen the show, s/he would know the content and would be able to make a decision about whether to bring a child to it. I don't think most parents who bring children to galleries fit that description. Museums are another story; they might have been before and bring the children to a favorite exhibition.

But that's just an aside. I think parents should take more responsibility about what their kids are exposed to, but I also don't think it's a horrible, prejudicing recontextualization of an artwork to have a modest sign (not DANGER ! TOXIC IMAGERY AHEAD), but something discreet, announcing "mature" material.


5/12/2008 01:20:00 PM  
Blogger kalm james said...

Unfortunately the realm of “shock art” is fast becoming a bore, the last resort of lazy or untalented artists. Lets face it the “poopoo, caca, XXX Hot Sex, and lets kill a dog school” is just too easy. The unintended consequence of the “sensationalization” of art is an ever coarsening sensitivity to mankind’s suffering and a corruption of aesthetics, with little redeeming qualities beyond momentary titillation. I haven’t seen Susan Dessel's piece, but in the last decade I’ve stumbled across enough of this type of stuff to realize that artists know when they’re crossing the boundaries.

The subject of this blog, and the number of responses bares witness to the ultimate goal of the work which is to create a scandal and generate interest, every artists wants to be be paind attention to, which I have no problem with, once I realize that’s brunt of the intent.

Regarding the institutional response, when you take the kings money, you do the king’s bidding. In other words, pay for it yourself or get some one who isn’t offended to shell out the funding,

just my grumpy opinion JK

5/12/2008 01:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the photo in the link to James Wagner's site is representative of the piece in question, those people at the BLT on wheat are bonkers (or children themselves). They don't expect any references to mass death in a show of work "conceived since September 11"?

Did these people not experience September 11? (And, really, everyone did, no matter where you were.)


5/12/2008 01:37:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

If you compare something like the video game Manhunt (the most violent of the lot) and any episode of CSI, to such controversial works of art as Serrano's peepee Christ or Mapplethorpe's S&M stuff, you gain insight into the pathetic moral equivalencies we deal with in this country. I don't think the following scenario could ever happen: a parent and child enter a gallery and there is a work of video art playing in which a man humps a cow while slitting its throat. The parent is agasp and tries to dive in front of the child before they can see or hear anything that will damage their psyche. The parent is too slow though and the child stares in abject horror and wonder at the disturbing imagery. Later in life the child is all grown up and still attending weekly depth therapy sessions, taking anti-psychotic medication, and trying to shake the habit of rubbing his/her groin against the family cat's genitals. Ridiculous. Billboard advertisements and television programming are more subjective and distorted than any controversial work of art that I can think of. Did anyone get upset when a bunch of Paul McCarthy videos were on display at the old MoMA? I think the artist humps a hole in the wall for several minutes while wearing a rubber penic nose in one of them. How many kids stumbled past that one? Was anyone hurt? Were countless numbers of psyches damaged? No. The art world is a backwater if you compare the number of people who play video games, watch television, and go to the movies, with the number of people who stroll through galleries or museums once or twice a year. If a religious person andf their child entered the Courbet exhibition at the MET they probably wouldn't be thrilled when they came up to "The Origin of the World". That is why I made the comment about a rating system in my first comment. Who is going to decide which works of art require warnings and which do not? Apparently lame ass board members at private museums will.

5/12/2008 02:02:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

penis not penic.

5/12/2008 02:04:00 PM  
Blogger joy said...

panic not penic.


5/12/2008 02:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

penile (rhymes with senile), not penic.


5/12/2008 02:13:00 PM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

Eric, would you please put some paragraph breaks in your comments, next time?

5/12/2008 02:14:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...


5/12/2008 02:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Joseph Barbaccia said...

I'm having a solo show next year in a Suburban Community Art Center where they requested that there be warning signs for the public, due to the "adult nature" of some my work. They thought I would be offended by the request. I was delighted and suggested we have more than the one sign they requested.

I'm looking forward to a heafty volume of dialog that controversy can bring.

5/12/2008 02:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


We should be seeing body bags daily on the news, coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Since those have been censored, Susan Dessel could be seen as performing a public service, filling in for journalism's copout. And apparently with no blood or graphic gore, much more "tasteful" and suitable for children than what you see any night on Law & Order or a dozen other primetime tv shows.

Oriane Stender

5/12/2008 02:26:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

jb I am sure that you are delighted to be having a show, no matter what context it appears in. Controversy tends to emerge from the remnants of our Puritan heritage. Controversy is all about context.

Biblical violence and sexual deviance is fine. Yahweh's wrath, Jesus' concubines. If someone tries to reveal the truth, Obama's bitter comment is a good example of this, we consider it controversial.

It isn't of course, but our values are completely inverted in this country. They are Orwellian from top to bottom. If art can't speak to truth than it is truly a worthless pursuit.

5/12/2008 02:43:00 PM  
Blogger Joseph Giannasio said...

if putting up a warning sign keeps mothers with small children from wandering into a gallery, IMHO the only question is what font do you use.;)

although there is the danger of attracting the trench coat crowd.

I don't quite get the video game comparison, since they have a rating system, and TV has parental warnings as well.

In both cases and with movies they are voluntary, they were set up under pressure from government committees, although it would be quite unlikely any law could be upheld to force ratings and warnings, TV does have to comply with FCC regulations which has to do with licensing for broadcast television which is why cable isn't required to follow some of the FCC regulation.

If the art world wants to disneyfiy itself it had better make sure it becomes G rated.

see you at the gift shop.

i just purchased a bolt gun.

you'll shoot your eye out

5/12/2008 02:56:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

Anyone who has children, works around children, isn't a bachelor or bachelorette completely cut off from the daily lives of children, knows that the tv and video game rating systems are a parody of our twisted, impotent, and ignorant puritanical ways, and are not thoroughly enforced by businesses or parents, or heeded by teenagers.

Most parents do not keep their children isolated from other children and under 24 hour surveillance. You can stick a label on something but if it means nothing it means nothing.

5/12/2008 03:08:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

I am specifically commenting on the television and video game rating systems.

5/12/2008 03:15:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

I guess if you feel that art galleries are on par with the cineplex than it makes sense that you would think that warnings need to be put up in galleries.

5/12/2008 03:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Joseph Barbaccia said...

Truth, like art, is of the moment. (Context yes!) Then fades and is distorted by time and memory. Truth and Art have to be constantly re-generated to be re-valued and made relevant to the moment. Looking towards the past and our memories for morality may be comforting because it seems much more familiar than the present; which is fraught with "possibilities".

Tried to get that last "re-" in there but just missed.

5/12/2008 03:30:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Eric: You are absolutely right about the ratings systems. And, honestly, the most horrifically not-suitable-for-children art I've seen is still vastly more pleasant and palatable than most of what you find on TV, in video games, and (good gawd!) on YouTube.

We try to at least keep track of what our kids are looking at and getting into, but then one comes home one day to say he was playing Grand Theft Auto at a friend's house. And in our house he's playing God of War, which I thought was okay -- it's just violence after all! -- until the topless women started showing up. Now, I'm not one to mind much -- I've got a painting of a vulva on my wall, after all -- but let's say there are others in the culture who are less loose about sexual imagery. And some of them live in my house.

Why is violence okay but sex and nudity isn't? It's America, who knows?

It's similar to learning English spelling. When my kids get upset over studying spelling words and want to know why something is spelled so insanely differently from how it's pronounced, I simplay say -- and I wish someone had said this to me when I was young -- "It's English spelling. It doesn't make any sense. Don't worry about it."

You kind of have to say the same thing about America, sex, violence, entertainment, and art: "It's America. It doesn't make sense. Don't worry about it."

You have to live in the culture but you don't have to like it.

5/12/2008 03:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Barry said...

Hi, James Kalm.

"I haven’t seen Susan Dessel's piece"

Have you not been wearing your bike helmet lately? That piece was in the backyard of Dam, Stuhltrager for the entire run of your show at the same gallery in 2006.

5/12/2008 03:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Jake, it's Chinatown."

5/12/2008 05:35:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

On August 20, 1940, Trotsky was successfully attacked in his home by a NKVD agent, Ramón Mercader, who smashed the pick of an ice axe into Trotsky's skull.[48]

Sorry for the offensive reference to REAL revolutionary politics. I'm totally out of here.

5/12/2008 05:37:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

So the Sistine Chapel should have a warning: CONTAINS NUDITY.

Those Greek vases should definitely have a warning: Contains VIOLENCE (AND NUDITY).

And viewers of renaissance paintings should be thoroughly prepared for what's to come, what with the images of burnings at the stake, arrows through torsos, put-out eyes, the crucifictions: CONTAINS SCENES OF GRATUITOUS VIOLENCE AND DEATH.

Then we can all go down to Disneyfied 42nd Street and take in some cleaned-up culcha: Cinderella (domestic violence), Sleeping Beauty (sadism), The Little Mermaid (giving up one's identity), and Beauty and the Beast (self explanatory).

Bottom line: Art galleries and are not for kids And most museums shouldn't be either (if only to allow museum-going adults to have a screech-free viewing experience). How about a little sign at the door that says, "You must be this high to enter." Hell, even Disney does that.

5/12/2008 08:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joanne, I can't believe you're a heightist!


5/12/2008 08:31:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

I don't mean to offend any Little People out there, Oriane; it's a reference to Disneyworld. Small children can't go on certain rides--just as they shouldn't go into certain galleries.

(Good seeing you last week, BTW.)

5/12/2008 08:59:00 PM  
Blogger concrete phone said...

Some comments stand naked, though make serious little sense! Ha ha ha! Disney does that.. Scary stuff!
I have a friend who makes a point of taking their kids everywhere. Man, I love having a conversation with them--invigorating!

But whatever! If I were in congress i'd pass a law that minimum requirement to enter any art establishment, including bookstores, would comprise having read Gardner's Art Through the Ages by 10--(you get to skulk around outside on a leash (plenty of slack), Shock of the New by 14 (get to stand center and spin in any atrium), Air Guitar before the Right to Drive (get to hang out in the facilities, and all). I don't really care about height, some people are just born small. Disney have that rule because undersize physically might have you falling out some of the rides, nothing to due with puritatioal logical, I think.
I guess that's what some of these content rich exhibitions are all about, perhaps! Kind of a reflection?

5/12/2008 09:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I got it. I was kidding. Nice to see you too.


5/12/2008 09:36:00 PM  
Blogger concrete phone said...

I guess the point is 'as an example', Ed's blog here is an institution (congrats there). And as an institution he has the right to decide if the content is fitting not only a height criteria, represents in broad terms the width and breadth of cultural and artistic tolerance the institution is able to, or wanting to, bare 'as artistic vision'.
By, in this case, burying the content that many might find repulsive within a link, the institution can continue to serve and educate the community, allowing people to make a decision for themselves, talk around it, take a peak in, decide for themselves whether or not to hit the link.
The head of the institution still has every right to take that link out. This can happen when the patrons of the institution still feel that a hot-link to what many will find indecent, or could cause unnecessary duress is too close at hand, too easy for honest, unaware people to be really clear about the choice they are making--whether or not to take a peek in!

5/12/2008 11:52:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

If museums/galleries won't abide by a ratings system that parallels the one used for movies (as Joanne pointed out ALL nudity would earn an R rating) then what would they use? Who would decide what is inaaporpriate for the public or what needs to be hidden away within the display spaces? Would things get censured because of their political content? Is pretend violence acceptable but real violence not? Is the penis okay but the vagina a no no? There is so much hypocrisy present in all existing ratings systems that I don't see how ART would not be seriously compromised and cheapened if it was forced to conform to a false hierarchy.

5/13/2008 08:03:00 AM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

inappropriate not inaaporpriate

5/13/2008 08:04:00 AM  
Blogger kalm james said...




5/13/2008 09:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You might be interested to know about a current censorship case that errupted in Australia last week when police raided a Sydney gallery and seized over twenty works from Bill Henson's new exhibition - both artist and gallery may face charges

5/29/2008 11:08:00 AM  

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