Recently, I found my art censored for the first time by a person or persons unknown! Even though the show was juried and the theme lent itself to expressing the human condition (Opposites Attract), there was virtually no figurative work in the show and so I was pleased to see that my multimedia assemblage diptych had been chosen for inclusion. Two days after the opening reception I got a call saying there was concern that given the number of school children coming to see the exhibition (of over 70 artworks), the fact that the work titled Man/Adam * included a small image of a penis, was deemed to be “problematic” and that there was concern that children, their teachers, parents, perhaps even a school superintendent might balk if word got back. Mind you, its twin Woman/Eve* featuring an exposed nipple and buttocks apparently caused no distress at all to these arbiters of correctness!
Coming on the heels of the brutal attack on artistic expression in Paris, I am proud to say that my art challenged the person or persons who were made to feel uncomfortable enough to demand that the work be censored. While art has a stake in continuity and upholding tradition, it must also challenge the status quo and speak truth. Otherwise, we end up with meaningless imagery filling our walls that hopefully compliments the upholstery. I would hardly call my piece provocative (or in Hitler’s terms “degenerate”) and yet I find myself confronted by a choice: remove the art or alter the art.
As a boy, I was lucky enough to grow up in New York City, and there wasn’t a museum I didn’t get to visit. I went everywhere (from the age of four on up) and saw everything. If I had questions, they were always answered in an age appropriate manner so that I could understand something of the artist’s intent. I have to wonder if children’s tours of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston bypass the gallery where Sargent’s masterpiece “Nude Study of Thomas E. McKeller” is hanging.
For those of you who don’t know the work, it is a nearly life size nude portrait of one of Sargent’s models (and perhaps lovers), in an angelic pose, legs splayed, genitals fully exposed. It is also one of the most beautiful paintings ever done of a male nude by a great artist and yes, in its time it was censored! In fact, until the major retrospective of Sargent’s work in 1999, much of his work had gone largely unseen. Like his male nudes, his landscapes had largely been ignored —only his portraits and murals had garnered attention. It was revelatory to me as an artist to discover that I had only known 1/3 of the man through his work!
If all our art needs to be safe and sanitized, never thought-provoking or even offensive, what exactly are we teaching our children? The latest initiatives in education ask teachers to challenge their students to think and respond creatively and critically to information. Not everything is pretty or nice in our world and invariably, it is the writer and the artist who dares to confront that other reality. That is the message our children need to leave exhibitions and museums with…there are many perspectives, multiple opinions, and everyone has the right to express their innermost feelings so long as they are willing to accept the consequences to their work and careers.
Sadly, I will be ending my association with the sponsoring organization, which claims to be an advocacy organization for artists and the Arts in my region. I have chosen to alter the art, covering all references to male and female anatomy with the words “censored” and “Je suis Charlie” which I suspect will get more notice than the work in its original condition. My art just doesn’t belong on Cape Cod and so I must seek out other venues where viewers are willing to be challenged and excited to guess at meaning and intent. That is what I want my art to offer, regardless of the style or the subject. That is what ART must do!
*Original versions of Man/Adam and Woman/Eve can be viewed in the “Contemporary” section of this blog.