By Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
With a brief reprieve after the ‘90s culture wars, it looks as though the tide is shifting back in the direction of visual art censorship.
With a brief reprieve after the ‘90s culture wars, it looks as though the tide is shifting back in the direction of visual art censorship, particularly with the incoming GOP Congress and its disdain for expression that is not squeaky clean. And the war is being fought from the halls of Congress — as with the much-publicized Smithsonian dismissal of “A Fire in My Belly” — to perpetually conservative points of consumerism — as with retail outlets’ disdain for Kanye West’s album cover painted by American artist George Condo. Most nefarious are those instances when museums, galleries and other outlets for art practice self-censorship, preemptively or not, to avoid controversy. The very last place artists should fear morality police are the institutions that are meant to support them, and the willful abnegation of free speech is dangerous indeed.
Here are six artists who were banned, censored or arrested, evoking controversy and setting precedents in visual art:
1. Frederick MacMonnies, Copley Square, 1894. To our modern eyes, sculptor Frederick MacMonnies’ “Bacchante and Infant Faun” could hardly be more innocuous. A naked but desexualized image of the Roman wine deity, cast in bronze and holding a child, its litheness seems countered only by its gaiety. But in 1854, when architect Follen McKim tried to mount it in the courtyard of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, a huge scandal erupted around the very qualities that seem so innocent today. The statue’s “drunken indecency” greatly offended the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, it seemed, and they had enough pull in the city that McKim thought better of his gift and shipped the Bacchus down to liberal New York. It resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art to this day, and partly as a result of the uproar surrounding it, MacMonnies became world-famous for the sculpture.
It was an early lesson for subsequent moralists — the bigger the stink over a piece of art, the bigger the artist will become. Case in point: the familiarity of armchair art aficionados with “Piss Christ,” Andres Serrano’s controversial photograph that became synonymous with the Republican war against the National Endowment of the Arts in the 1990s.
2. Jean Toche, Flyers, 1974. In 1974, Jean Toche, co-founder of the situationist Guerrilla Art Action Group, mailed 30 flyers to museums and galleries throughout New York City criticizing their exhibition policies as bourgeois and exclusionary. In particular, he was defending what he believed was the artistic right of Tony Shafrazi to deface Picasso’s “Guernica,” having spraypainted the words “KILL LIES ALL” across the masterpiece in a protest against Vietnam and a purported effort to snatch it back from the gullet of history.
Toche’s defense wasn’t incendiary in itself, though the GAAG built its reputation on anti-war “happenings” inside museums, including one 1969 incident that ended with animal blood spewed all over the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art. Where he got himself into trouble was this passage in the flyer’s text:
We now call for the kidnapping of: museum’s trustees, museum’s directors, museum’s creators, museum’s benefactors, to be held as war hostages until a People’s Court is convened, to deal specifically with the cultural crimes of the ruling class, and with decision of sanctions, reparation and restitution, in whatever form decided by the People and the Artists.
Though his “kidnapping” was meant to be symbolic, the FBI is not known for its subtlety as art critic, and immediately arrested him at the behest of a presumably more nuanced critic, Douglas Dillion, then-president of MoMA. Toche was compelled by a federal judge to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, after which the charges were dropped. He continues to make political mail art, in caps lock.
3. Blu, MoCa, 2010. It’s remarkable (and confusing) that MoCA director Jeffrey Deitch, who made his name in New York City by displaying some of the most interesting and innovative contemporary art around in his eponymous gallery for nearly 15 years, would ever censor anything. But that’s exactly what happened in December, after he commissioned the celebrated and controversial Italian graffiti artist Blu to paint a large-scale mural at the museum’s entrance. Their contract was signed without a preliminary sketch, as is Blu’s standard modus operandi. And so, while Deitch attended Art Basel in Miami, Blu worked on his piece: a huge painting of the coffins of war casualties, with dollar bills instead of American flags draped over them.
Blu does not shrink when it comes to making strong statements with his work — using the dollar bill as a common theme, he’s commented on the varying tentacles of corporate greed since 2000. According to an email conversation between the artist and longtime graffiti archivist Henry Chalfant, Deitch requested Blu paint a different mural over the coffins, “suggesting he would have preferred a piece that ‘invites people to come in the museum’. I told him that i will not to do that, for obvious reasons, and that probably I was not the artist best suited for this task.”
LA MoCA justified its actions by claiming sensitivity to veterans:
The Geffen Contemporary building is located on a special, historic site. Directly in front of the north wall is the Go For Broke monument, which commemorates the heroic roles of Japanese American soldiers, who served in Europe and the Pacific during World War II, and opposite the wall is the LA Veterans’ Affairs Hospital. The museum’s director explained to Blu that in this context, where MOCA is a guest among this historic Japanese American community, the work was inappropriate. MOCA has invited Blu to return to Los Angeles to paint another mural.
A lucid reading of Blu’s original mural is not that it belittled the veterans or trivialized their heroism, but that it criticized the motivations behind the present long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it was whitewashed immediately after it was finished, before it could invite legitimate critique or conversation.
4. Karen Finley, ‘The Chocolate Smearing Incident,’ 1990. The late 1980s and 1990s were a tornado of art battles, with Jesse Helms having palpitations over Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic portraits and Andres Serrano’s crucifix-in-a-urinal. But feminist performance artist Karen Finley was the first of the targeted artists to have her NEA grant revoked because of a column written by two reporters scolding her without having even seen her work. Rowland Evans and Robert Novack took a belittling, paternalistic slant on Finley’s act, characterizing the 34-year-old artist as a “chocolate-smeared woman” based on a piece she created about male violence toward women. Ironic! Her NEA solo performance grant was defunded, then refunded, leading to a 1998 Supreme Court case in which she challenged the law that required the NEA to be held up to decency standards. She lost, but not before she got in a retort, 1998’s “Return of the Chocolate Smeared Woman.” This time, the chocolate was smeared liberally.
5. Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary, 1999. Broken windows weren’t blustery Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s only concern during his lengthy stay as head of New York. He was also markedly unenthused by “Sensation,” a provocative exhibit held at the Brooklyn Art Museum showcasing young British artists culled from the collection of Charles Saatchi. In particular, Giuliani had it out for Chris Ofili’s depiction of an African Virgin Mary punctuated by nude derrieres meant to evoke blaxploitation films — and elephant excrement to evoke Ofili’s Nigerian background. He called the piece “anti-Catholic” and further, thought the art itself was “horrible” — perhaps his first bit of art criticism on record during his tenure. He proceeded to file a lawsuit against the museum that sought to evict it from a lease it had held for over a century, in addition to slashing the funding it received from the city of New York.
After a several months-long fracas that included protests, support, amused patrons and gallerists — “That was great! You’d pay a million dollars to get publicity on that scale,” enthused British art dealer Jay Jopling — the city and the museum reached a settlement. But not before Giuliani’s lawyer, Michael Hess, got in the old standby quote — that the art is “really not even for the general public the kind of exhibit that taxpayers should pay for.” Echoes of Boehner and Cantor in this statement — it’s a particularly relevant tactic to invoke taxpayer ire, and fits in neatly with all the empty belt-tightening rhetoric.
6. Rose Bochovski, Second Life, 2010. It seems odd that art censorship should bleed into virtual reality, a mirror existence built on pixels inside the Internet. But this past June, when the video artist Rose Bochovski exhibited her computer-graphic, 3-D film Susa Bubble in a Second Life art gallery, it was promptly removed, with the censors citing Second Life’s rules disallowing nudity beyond spaces with an “adult” rating. The images, viewable below, depict a young girl who is naked but not in any real provocative way and is completely devoid of sexualization, whether in the rendering or in the context. Real 21st-century problems, these, but they illustrate the vast illogic of censorship — a couple of keystrokes on the Internet and anyone can view anything from real-life corpses to hardcore pornography. And yet in an online gaming system, a woman whose art piece is moderately less naked than Henry Darger’s cherubic hermaphrodites gets the boot? Surreal. Go here to read Bochovski’s response.