The subjective nature of art will always make it divisive. Whether it’s a painting, an installation or even an album cover, art will always have supporters and critics.
Some artists complain of double standards when they are censored. Their argument revolves around the acceptance of nudity if the work is done by one of the great “Masters” but if done by a modern artist, it’s branded as “pornography”. To fight this censorship, some artists have chosen to create human performance art, where the artist IS the piece.
In 2013, performance artist staged a performance protest by nailing his testicles to the cobble stones of Russia’s Red Square. In June 2014, Deborah de Robertis ‘re-interpreted’ Gustav Courbet’s already controversial The Origin of the World painting into performance art. Sitting on the floor of the Paris Musée d’Orsay, in front of the original painting, she proceeded to reveal her own genitalia to passersby.
Where do we draw the line? When does art move from thought-provoking to being distasteful? Who has the right to say what is art and what is trash? If art is supposed to imitate life, why does society take umbrage when artists show us THEIR interpretation of events?
To be fair, some artists take “pushing boundaries” a bit far. One example is Tracey Emin’s My Room, which is an installation of her disheveled bed strewn with tampons, cigarette butts, condoms and her underwear. Whether you consider it art or trash, it sold for $3.9 million in 2014.
With awards like the Turner Prize polarizing the art world, the divisive nature of art will continue to generate arguments for decades. Sit back and appreciate ten exhibitions and pieces that were censored and taken down.
10. John Ahearn, South Bronx Bronzes
Misappropriation isn’t a topic only found in hip hop and black culture, and neither is it a recent phenomenon. In the 1980s, Ahearn, a white sculptor, lived and worked in Brooklyn’s South Bronx. As a sculptor, he looked to his immediate environment for inspiration. Living in a predominantly black neighborhood, he created life sized sculptures of everyday people.
Always giving a copy of the piece to the model, he soon garnered a large following. His popularity led to the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs commissioning him to create sculptures for a police station. Sticking with his method of using regular Joes in the community as subjects, the South Bronx Bronzes were created.
However, as soon as they were unveiled, a debate on race erupted. While some accused him of stereotyping black people as hoodlums, others questioned his right to create black sculptures. Disturbed by the controversy, he self-censored the work and took the sculptures down himself.
9. Blu, Art in the Streets Exhibit
In a 2010, as part of its “Art in the Streets” exhibition, the Museum of Contemporary Art commissioned Italian street artist Blu to paint a mural on the wall of the Geffen Contemporary.
Given free rein, Blu covered the three-story and almost 300-foot wide wall in a mural depicting row upon row of coffins draped in one-dollar bills. The mural proved a bit too edgy for the MOCA and its new director, Jeffrey Deitch. Deitch immediately ordered the whitewashing of the entire wall within hours of its completion.
MOCA claimed they had no idea what the artist would paint and felt the mural was “insensitive to the local community”.
8. Peter Langenbach, Loose Lips Sink Ships
In a classic case of humor translated into art, Langenbach sculpted former President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky lounging in a bathtub. The depiction and the name of the piece was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the nature of the affair the two subjects had.
Created from recycled materials, the piece was entered in the Napa County Fair, in San Francisco, where it won a best-in-show award. The artist entered it into the State Fair, where it was accepted and even won the fair’s first place award for 3-D sculpture. All seemed rosy, at least at first.
A week later, officials banned the sculpture. One reason given was “the exhibit could be offensive to some people and inappropriate for young children”. In his defense, Langenbach surmised that regardless of what one does, someone, somewhere is bound to get upset and take offense.
7. Gran Fury, Kissing Doesn’t Kill
Before Twitter’s trending hashtags, reaching a wide audience with limited funds consisted of practicing some very creative advertising. Gran Fury was fed up with the perceived indifference of the government towards AIDS victims. As the (unofficial) propaganda arm of the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, a series of adverts were devised to shock people and grab the attention of the government.
For their 1989 piece, Kissing Doesn’t Kill, they created advertisement panels showing kissing couples. To highlight the prejudice at the time, the couples shown were interracial and same-sex. These ads were run on bus and transit station billboards in Washington, New York and Chicago. City officials responded by requesting the pieces be taken down as they “did nothing to promote AIDS prevention”.
6. Hong Seong-dam, Sewol Owol
To mark the Gwangju Bienniale’s 20th anniversary, South Korean artist Hong Seong-dam was commissioned to create art pieces. Seon-dam’s entry depicted the South Korean president Park Geun-hye as a scarecrow being attacked by a group of people. The painting was meant to depict the tensions in the country at the time. The people in arms against the president were parents of children who had died in the sinking of the MV Sewol ferry.
With some critics championing his right to artistic expression and others claiming the depiction was disrespectful, the painting was pulled from being exhibited. The censorship led to the resignation of the president of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation, Lee Yong-woo.
5. Brett Bailey, Exhibition B
The term human zoo doesn’t sound “right” in any context, neither does any “art” depicting it. A 2014 exhibition by white South African artist Brett Bailey consisted of live black performers in cages, some in shackles and one performer in the nude to play the part of Sara Baartman. He claims his installation was “…a piece about humanity…a system of dehumanization that affects everybody…regardless of skin color, ethnic or cultural background”.
Critics were quick to call for a boycott of the exhibition citing complicit racism by the Barbican. Despite having been shown across Europe and in Edinburgh, it was pulled from the Barbican on its opening night.
4. Marie Morel, L’Amour
At the 13th edition of the Festival International d’Art Singulier, once again, censorship reared its head. This time the implications went beyond one painting; the entire festival was canceled and the director stepped down.
The mayor’s office in the municipality of Aubagne took offense to two works of art, branding them pornographic and demanding that they be removed from display. The offending works were a large-scale erotic painting titled L’Amour by Marie Morel and a kinetic sculpture of a woman giving birth by the artist Demin. The censorship was blamed on political differences between the artists and the mayor, but it all led to the cancellation of the whole festival.
3. Megumi Igarashi, 3-D Boat
Japanese artist Igarishi is known for her sculptures, manga art and having a pseudonym that roughly translates into “bad girl”. Determined to break the taboo around discussing female genitalia in Japan, Igarashi first started making small dioramas from a mold of her own vagina. Inspired to use the shape to create bigger art pieces, she set up crowd-funding to make a 3-D printed kayak that was based on the vagina mold.
As the campaign was successfully funded, she began distributing the digital files containing the 3-D scan of the mold to backers. This led to her arrest and being charged with distributing “obscene” data in 2014. She was released when thousands signed a petition demanding her release. Her case went to trial and it began in April 2015.
2. Ruth Stanford, A Walk in the Valley
Stanford was commissioned to create art about about Georgia author Corra Harris for the new Bernard A. Zuckerman Museum of Art at Kennesaw State University. Her finished work spent only two weeks on display before it was removed by the board of KSU.
The reason? Included in the piece was a relic in the form of an article glorifying lynching, written by Harris in 1899. The racist tone of the article was deemed objectionable and could cause offense. While the article is offensive, does it change the fact that it was written? Should the artist have to suffer for the subject’s views? The censorship led to five days of protests and a lot of media coverage. In the ensuing discussions, a decision was made to reinstate the work.
1. SAGE, Mike Brown mural
In the wake of the 2014 shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, a local coalition of artists known as SAGE painted a mural on a vacant storefront. It depicted Brown in a graduation cap and the words, “Sagging pants is not probable cause.”
It was up for a few weeks before the council of Trenton sent in a removal crew to blast away the mural. Amidst protests from the SAGE Coalition, the council claimed that the corner where the mural was painted was inappropriate and local cops were not comfortable patrolling the area. Seen as censorship by the council, SAGE say they are committed to continue the dialogue.
Art will always be divisive. Censorship is a double-edged sword that must be wielded ever so gently.
Sourcs: wnyc.org, huffingtonpost.com, washingtontimes.com, theatlantic.com, theguardian.com, dailymail.com, independent.co.uk