ITALIAN RENAISSANCE: GIROLAMO SAVONAROLA Prior at Dominican Monastery of San Marco in Florence. Begins preaching against what he believes is the corrupting influence of modern (Renaissance) culture and its leading proponents (in Florence, the Medici family). Develops a huge following which temporarily expels the Medici and reorganizes the city’s government. Organizes “ Bonfires of the Vanities,” in which paintings, books, etc., which were believed to promote a degenerate or un-Christian way of life were destroyed. Executed in 1498.
PISS CHRIST by ANDRES SERRANO (USA; 1989) --Photograph of a plastic crucifix immersed in a glass of the artist’s own urine. Given an award by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts, an organization which receives funding from the U.S. federal government. --Caused an uproar when first exhibited; infuriated members of conservative and religious organizations across the U.S.
PISS CHRIST by ANDRES SERRANO (USA; 1989) Questions which arise: --Does freedom of speech cover acts which might offend the religion or morality of another group? --Should federal funding be restricted only to art which is considered inoffensive? If so, who should decide what is offensive, or who should that determination be made? --Should museums and galleries bow to pressure, especially threats of violence, and censor themselves?
THE HOLY VIRGIN MARY by CHRIS OFILI (England; 1996) --An exaggerated, black depiction of the Virgin Mary which incorporates elephant dung, an apparent allusion to African ideas of fertility. --Greatly offended Christians when displayed at the Brooklyn Art Museum in New York. --Attacked by a 72-year-old Christian man who attempted to smear paint over it. --The then New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani attempted to censor the museum, threatening to withhold funding unless they closed the exhibition. Led to a public debate on censorship.
Comments: “ The idea of having so-called works of art in which people are throwing elephant dung at a picture of the Virgin Mary is sick.”--Mayor Rudolph Giuliani “ Mayor Giuliani’s reactions appear to be based on the narrow definition that art should only be beautiful and an equally narrow picture of a Virgin Mary who looks like Ingrid Bergman.” --Art Historian Michael Davis THE HOLY VIRGIN MARY by CHRIS OFILI (England; 1996)
Questions and issues: --Again, freedom of speech vs. religious morality; but in this case, is there an additional issue of freedom of religion? Does censoring the picture infringe upon the artist’s right to express his own version of the Virgin Mary? And is an attempt to suppress this version of the Virgin a de facto racist act? Or was the artist’s religious sentiment in fact sincere? --Was Giuliani justified in not only attempting to censor the image but threaten the museum itself? Is it relevant that he never even bothered to look at the image in person, or meet with the museum or artist? THE HOLY VIRGIN MARY by CHRIS OFILI (England; 1996)
ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE --Part of influential gay subculture in 1970s New York; worked for Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine. --Became famous for his graphic, homoerotic photos, but his total body of work also included still lifes, more traditional nudes, and celebrity portraits.
ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE --A career retrospective organized to tour seven cities in 1989. At this time, Mapplethorpe was dying of AIDS. --The show first went to Philadelphia and Chicago and did not provoke hostile attention; it had received mostly positive reviews. --The show next went to Washington D.C., and an uproar ensued. Conservative senators and congressmen (especially Jesse Helms) and religious used the Mapplethorpe exhibit to attack the NEA, since the Corcoran Gallery, which was scheduled to host the exhibit, received federal funding.
ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE --Dick Armey (Texas congressman) circulated copies of the catalog of the Mapplethorpe exhibit and a petition calling for a review of the NEA. --Pat Buchanan claimed the Mapplethorpe show was evidence of a band of gay and arts based radicals, suffering from “an infantile disorder,” who wanted to subvert Christian American culture and create a pagan society. --Jesse Helms introduced an amendment to restrict funding for the arts, and bar the use of federal funds for things which he deemed offensive or pornographic.
ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE --Against this onslaught, and fearful of losing its own funding, the Corcoran Gallery decided, the night before it was scheduled to open, not to show the exhibit. --Arts activists and proponents of freedom of speech then took action against the Corcoran, staging protests and projecting Mapplethorpe’s images onto the gallery walls at night. --The Washington Project for the Arts, a private organization, then stepped in and hosted the show, and attendance set new records.
ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE --Protests awaited the show when it traveled to Cincinnati. The Contemporary Arts Center was the subject of harassment and threats before the show opened, and they put it on without using only private funds. They attempted to have their legal status clarified by asking a grand jury to look at the photographs before the show opened. The grand jury refused. --When the show opened, the grand jury arrived, declared the exhibit obscene, had the police close it, and had the gallery’s director, arrested. He was tried on obscenity charges but acquitted.
Questions and issues: --To what extent were the problems over the Mapplethorpe show due to homophobia? Would it have been different if the images were heterosexual? --Again, the issue of public funds supporting potentially offensive art exhibits. Do not people of minority races or sexual orientations have a right not just to publically exhibit their images, but to have their own tax dollars used to that end? --Should the curator in Cincinnati have been arrested? Had he done enough to try to prepare the viewer for the show and clarify the gallery’s legal position?
Mayor Harold Washington: --Elected first Black mayor of Chicago, 1983 --Difficult first term, marked by racial divisions; several of his programs stymied by White aldermen from working class districts --Re-elected in 1987 --Re-apportionment put him in a better position to exercise his will and enact his programs
Mayor Richard Washington: --Died soon after being re-elected (November 1987); suffered a heart attack while at his desk
David Nelson: --White student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago --At the school’s gallery in early 1988 displays a portrait of Mayor Washington dressed in women’s undergarments and holding a pencil --The women’s undergarments are a reference to rumors that Washington, who was a bachelor, may have been gay; his adversaries also claimed he was a transvestite. These rumors were never proven. --He titled the painting “Girth and Mirth,” after a magazine for overweight gay men --The pencil is a reference to a pencil Washington was holding when he was found dead.
Questions which arise from the episode: --What was Nelson’s real motivation? How important are his motives in the controversy? --Should censorship have occurred? Does the painting qualify as an expression of “free speech?” What are the limits of free speech, and are there points at which that right should be curtailed in the public interest? --How important to the ensuing controversy was the racial aspect?—would things have been different had Nelson been Black? How important was the sexual aspect?—would things have been different if there had not been an implication of homosexuality? --What about the role of school? Should the School of the Art Institute of Chicago shown the painting in the first place? Could they, or should they, have taken steps from the outset to prevent a controversy? --Was the reaction somehow specific to Chicago?— might things have been different in another city?
--A few months later, a Black student named “Dread” Scott Tyler, also from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago would ignite further controversy. --In early 1989 he exhibited “ What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?” It was composed of 3 elements: an American flag on the floor, and above it a photo collage and a shelf with a book for comments. “ Dread” Scott Tyler
“ Dread” Scott Tyler --He denied that his exhibit was in some way a reaction to Nelson’s, but had stated that Nelson’s painting was “pretty damn shallow and pretty damn offensive.” --Scott Tyler was a politically active artist who took the name Dread the 1857 court case “Dread Scott vs. Sandford,” which upheld a Black man’s legal status as a slave. It was one of the causes of the Civil War. --The exhibit appeared in a show of minority artists, ironically intended as part of a healing process after the Nelson affair.
“ What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?” by “ Dread” Scott Tyler, 1989
The collage: protests, flag burning, and flags draped over coffins
--As part of an “effort to oppose moves to make patriotism compulsory,” that artist and several supporters went to Washington and burned flags on the steps of the US Capitol.
--The Supreme Court ruled that the Flag Protection Act was unconstitutional, and ruled that “the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
Again, question arise: --Despite his claims, do you think the artist was in part motivated by the Nelson incident? --Again, should the school have intervened? Did they do the right thing by backing down, to the artist’s refusal to remove the piece, and the students’ threats of a strike? --To what extent do you think race might have again been a factor in the controversy?—i.e., might it have been any different if the artist was white? Either way, to what extent did his militant stance fuel the controversy? --Should free speech be curtailed when it comes to un-patriotic gestures? --Did the veterans have a fair right to be offended?—if they fought for “American rights,” should they have respected the artist’s right to free speech and not tried to interfere? --Do the President or Senate have a right to publicly criticize artists, and if so, should they use it? --Do you agree with the Supreme Court’s decision? --Does the episode still have relevance today (the Patriot Act, etc.)?