Art, Porn and Censorship: the Mansfield Art Center (OH) Covers up Painting

A painting, included in a juried exhibition show at the Mansfield Art Center in Ohio, was partially covered with black paper. The painting had been selected for inclusion in the show, but the management of the Art Center decided that the outside edges of the work, which were covered with clippings from pornographic magazines, should not be seen by anyone. Sans edges the work was a simple urban landscape. According to the artist, Neil Yoder, “The peripheral edge emerged from the idea ‘supple, viscous soft blue’ contrasting with the earth tones of post industrial dreamscapes….The contrast of differing beauty forms or subconscious shapes, tinged with revulsion, ecstasy, perceived ‘filth,’ aesthetic fascination, birth and death.”

So, with the edges covered, the work was rather dramatically reduced in meaning: the interplay between  industrial landscape and sex imagery  being, arguably, at its core. For an Arts Center to tamper so heavy-handedly with the integrity of an artwork is very disturbing. According to the Center’s director, Tracy Graziani, “We normally don’t like to censor art, but this is pornography and there are laws about how to handle pornography and would we be liable if a child viewed it?”

We are pleased that the Arts Center “normally” doesn’t “like to censor,” but not too hopeful when its director exhibits a rather vague understanding of what the law allows. In fact, the law regulates obscenity, not pornography. Pornography has no legal definition whatsoever, while obscenity is defined, in part, as material without serious artistic value. Clearly such is not the case with a work that was selected by a jury for an arts exhibition.

Not only is the work not obscene, it comes as part of a whole genre of contemporary work today using images from popular culture, including porn imagery. Chris Ofili’s, The Holy Virgin Mary, which provoked then mayor Rudy Giuliani to threaten the Brooklyn Museum of Art with eviction, contained porn cutouts alongside the clumps of elephant dung that became the main focus of the controversy. Giuliani lost the court battle against the museum and the show went on to attract record audiences. Jeff Koons, one of the biggest contemporary art stars, made a series of works based on explicit images of him and his soon-to-be-wife having sex. John Currin, one of my own contemporary favorites, and subject to a Whitney and MCA Chicago retrospectives, also draws on porn for his exquisitely executed but disturbing paintings. There are many more artists working with porn but transforming it in their artwork into something else than a simple aid to arousal and sometimes even its exact opposite.

Explicit sex in art is by far not limited to the present: Back to the 19th century, Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World is both a crotch shot and a work exhibited in major museums around the world (including the Metropolitan). Farther back in history, we can look at Japanese shunga (very explicit pornographic woodcuts) or the Tantric imagery of Khajuraho temples.

The images mentioned above have been seen by many children and no disaster has ensued. They are all much more in-your-face than the rather discreet edges of Yoder’s painting. But the crucial issue here is that concerns about children (whether real or imaginary) cannot be allowed to reduce all the Art Center’s exhibitions to content suitable for six-year olds. Adults have rights too (remember free speech, the first amendment?) – and when these adults bring their children to a museum or art gallery, they know that it is not a children’s playground. If the Art Center is worried about the reaction of these parents, they can provide informational materials and make it the parents’ choice whether to bring their children or not rather than “dressing” an art work and making it inaccessible to all.

About these ads

About Blog of the National Coalition Against Censorship

Blogging Censorship is where National Coalition Against Censorship staff weigh in on the censorship issues on their minds.
This entry was posted in Svetlana Mintcheva: Author and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Art, Porn and Censorship: the Mansfield Art Center (OH) Covers up Painting

  1. I appreciate your interest in this complex issue, sadly I do not appreciate your approach to journalism. If you would like firsthand information about this issue I would be happy to discuss it with you. I might also encourage you to interview those who attended the forum and/or speak to the artist. –Tracy Graziani

  2. We feel strongly that our inclusive and community-based approach allowed for active and engaging expression of free speech and access to information. We are not a government body, we are a community organization and we responded as one. The artist participated in all phases of the process as did our board and membership. Everyone in Mansfield, Ohio seems to be quite pleased with the results. I do find it telling that a blog dealing with censorship censors comments posted there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s