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Art has a long history of giving rise to vocal outrage, but should there be restrictions on how far to push the boundaries? Art is no stranger to the gasp-inducing; in fact, it often strives on it. It’s not unusual to encounter art that can upset or even infuriate viewers, but a string of recent art-world controversies has questioned the need for more curatorial caution. Current events have marked the increasing tension between freedom of expression and tolerance and sensitivity.
The question of whether or not controversial artwork should be removed from view or even destroyed has created a divide in the art world. A New York Times article by Roberta Smith, “Should Art That Infuriates Be Removed? ” discusses this divide.
The heart of this controversy began at the Whitney Biennial. Smith argues that art censorship gained momentum when a white artist’s painting was displayed at the Whitney Biennial. The artist, Dana Schutz, painted a piece titled “Open Casket” based on a graphic photograph of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American who was brutally murdered by two white men in 1955. Emmett’s death was one of the major events that sparked the beginning of the civil rights movement. It has continued to be an open wound in our society. Schutz’ painting has drawn protests by many black artists stating that the Till photographs are a “black subject matter,” off-limits to a white artist. Many artists viewed Schutz’ painting as exploiting the suffering of the black community for “profit and fun. ”Smith explores the particular artists who are opposed to Schutz’ painting. Hannah Black, a black artist and writer from the United Kingdom, urged to Whitney Biennial curators that the painting must not only be removed from the gallery, but also destroyed. Smith quotes Black who stated, “White free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights.
The painting must go. ”Throughout history, artists have depicted black bodies as a subject matter. However, many black artists have fought to protect this subject matter, especially from non-black artists. In her article, Smith also discusses the opposition to art censorship. On the other side of the debate, Kara Walker, a black artist, stood up for Schutz’s painting. Smith quotes Walker who wrote, “The history of painting is full of graphic violence and narratives that don’t necessarily belong to the artists own life. ” She states that artwork can be a powerful statement, regardless of how or who it offends, viewers must give “rise to deeper inquiries and better art. It can only do this when it is seen. ”
A New York Times opinion piece titled, “Decolonizing the Art Museum: The Next Wave” by Olga Viso discusses how art museums are taking action in response to viewers who seek justice for art centered around race and gender. In the article, Viso poses the question: “How do museums re-conceive their missions at a time of great societal reckoning around race and gender, and as more diverse audiences demand a voice and a sense of accountability? ”Art museums have the responsibility of not only displaying artwork by artists of all races and genders, but also taking into account how the artwork affects the viewer. As director of the Walker Art center, Viso states that she was faced with this challenge after the controversy over “Scaffold,” a public sculpture by Sam Durant.
The piece depicted gallows, a structure used for the hanging of criminals. Viso expresses that the gallows were meant to represent the seven state sanctioned executions between 1859 and 2006. She states that the purpose of this piece was to “critique the persistence of the death penalty in the hierarchies. ”As director of the Walker Art center, Viso states that she was faced with this challenge after the controversy over “Scaffold,” a public sculpture by Sam Durant. The piece depicted gallows, a structure used for the hanging of criminals. Viso expresses that the gallows were meant to represent the seven state sanctioned executions between 1859 and 2006. She states that the purpose of this piece was to “critique the persistence of the death penalty in the hierarchies. ”Viso mentions that she had hoped “Scaffold” would be an opportunity of education and awareness. However, after the unveiling of the sculpture and reaction from the public, she realized that it only ignored America’s colonial past and provoked historical trauma. Viso reflects on her mistakes and states that this experience was humbling. She argues that it is important for museums to engage in dialogue with their audiences. To remain a relevant platform, it is crucial for museums to proceed with empathy and humility. Despite efforts to make a meaningful change in the art world, significant gaps remain between growing minorities and art museums. Systematic change takes time, vision, and leadership. Art can not only be an expression of the faults in our society, but also present ways for us to grow. Despite this, artists should not be the only individuals who highlight the faults and provide opportunities to grow in our society. Viso argues that for museums to remain significant sources of history, they should not ignore the voice of activists. Museums are centers of education, not authority.
Themes of race and violence has always been a prevalent concept in artwork throughout history. By remaking tragic or upsetting moments of history as art, artists have given them a sense of historical significance and a physicality.
In regards to this divide in the art world, I’m on the messy middle ground, constantly shifting with the discovery of various opinion pieces, articles, and news reports. Further exploration of this topic is necessary because the discussion that surrounds censorship of art is upsetting, but most of important of all — it’s beneficial. “Open Casket”, “Scaffold” and the debates that surround them are not a new concept to the art world, but they will certainly change it. Art whether we know it or not, is all around us. Researching this topic will help me grow as an artist, and deeper my knowledge and perspective of my fellow artists. I hope to learn more about both stances on this debate and come to a solid conclusion.
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