The Artist's Muse Art Blog
--First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution
Raised as a white Christian female, my initial reaction to nudity and erotica in art is highly predictable. But if you consider that fifty percent of the population is female and many of them white and Christian, my reaction is not in the minority. In Victorian times it was unheard of for a woman to show her ankles in public. A painting or sculpture of a woman's ankles would have elicited a very mixed public response. In today's world you only need to turn on the television to witness the evolution that has taken place. Nudity/erotica spills over into advertisements, reality TV, music videos and the like. In fact, little is left to the imagination anymore. Saturated with such imagery, viewers have become desensitized to it. Curiously, this is not the case in fine art. Incidents of censorship in art appear in the news on a daily basis. http://www.ncac.org/"> The National Coalition Against Censorship lists many current cases on their website: an art show closed down because of the inclusion of a nude human figure that is "too detailed", museum exhibits cancelled due to the public response to a nude sculpture, murals removed from public spaces in reaction to a conservative community's disdain. After my initial reaction to graphic, nude art in museums or galleries, I then become curious about it, as curious as I am about imagery not having to do with the human body. What statement is the artist making? How successful is the piece in terms of content and aesthetics? By keeping an open mind I can respect and appreciate the work of another artist and witnessing the expression expands my vision.
How do we define the boundary between pornographic material and "edgy art?" How graphic is too graphic? Should art that is considered erotica by some be exhibited in public spaces, even if it makes the public uncomfortable? How do we define censorship or suppression? How do we up hold the ideals of the First Amendment with imagery that is controversial? These are some of the questions that need to be addressed as we grapple with this age-old debate, as do the galleries, museums, retailers and websites that have to decide whether or not to exhibit them.
Svetlana Mintcheva, coordinator of the NCAC's arts advocacy project said, "the beliefs of a small minority, who think the human body is an object of shame, are countered not only by centuries of art, but also by the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. We are all entitled to our beliefs; however, it is not a democratic government's mandate to embrace the beliefs of one group at the expense of everyone else." This was in response to the closing of an annual Open Studio Art Show in Nevada County, CA after an initial attempt to remove five individual works that contained partial nudity. The cancellation was interpreted as a silencing of one type of artistic expression.
When we view art, we bring who we are to the artwork. As we face the canvas all of our life experience stands there along side us and can't help but color how we respond to the work at hand. A culture whose members grow up exposed to nudity might chuckle at another group's discomfort with it. Public response to controversial artwork changes with the times and the fabric of society. The recent scandals in the Catholic Church and greater awareness of the frequency of childhood sexual abuse have contributed to the societal impulse to shy away from exhibiting provocative work. Indoctrinating chaste ethics and strengthening family values is seen by some as the cure to what ails society. While returning to puritan standards seems to sooth the anxiety and fear about nudity in the art and what an unsuspecting viewer might see, we can't cover everything up with fig leaves. In some circles, that would be called denial. Clearly society leans toward a more conservative viewpoint on nudity, especially male nudity. A http://www.vroma.org/images/mcmanus_images/venusmelos_2d.htm"> bare-breasted female tends not to spawn the same reaction as a http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/cultureshock/flashpoints/visualarts/david_big.html"> naked man would.
Pornography is defined by Merriam-Webster as "material that depicts erotic behavior intended to cause sexual excitement." Edgy art then, flirts around that boundary and is provocative, yet the intention differs and is more likely motivated by self-expression or an attempt to startle viewers. The line seems a bit clearer when we focus on the rhetoric. The water gets muddy when humans respond to the art in question.
Non-profit institutions that rely heavily on public and private money quake at the idea of the negative publicity that might come from exhibiting art of this nature. Institutions are as much about censorship as anyone else. The ramifications of exhibiting controversial work can directly affect the revenue of organizations already struggling to survive. However, conservative measures could have the reverse effect of putting off contributors who are less traditional. Although for-profit institutions may seem to have a little more leeway, a gallery owner or website manager may see business drop off if an exhibit offends a large percentage of their clientele.
Many museums and galleries, who decide to exhibit work of a controversial nature, inform the public of its content. Disclaimer sign-age that suggests the work on view is for "mature audiences" leaves the decision up to the viewer. This approach provides a middle ground, which respects viewers and artists on both sides of the issue. There are further complications for websites who offer artists the ability to show such work as they are bound by the Communications Act to prohibit imagery, which might be considered "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent from being transmitted to recipients under 18 years of age," which is very difficult to control.
http://www.thefirstamendment.org/">The First Amendment Project, an organization devoted to upholding the First Amendment, suggests that "freedom of artistic expression is the principle that an artist should be unrestrained by law or convention in the making of his or her art. It is vital to the cultural and political health of society and essential to democracy." While the imposition of restraint in the creation process is an obvious act of censorship, it becomes less clear when the same work is put on public view. That is why determinations regarding censorship continue to be made on a case-by-case basis.
It is important that we as artists, writers, and art enthusiasts continue to debate and scrutinize how this issue is handled. It is crucial to continue to question the place of provocative art work in the art world and society at large. While we may never live to see the removal of the fig leaves from the figures in the Sistine Chapel, we can work toward and hope for expanded vision and understanding."Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise there of; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."--First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution