Originally published on Art Swamp

Monday, February 16, 2009

To be called a “difficult artist,” or, censorship is not about nudity

Note: Thank you to Jessica for writing about this experience - it's important for local artists to know this happens, to notice when it doesn't happen, and to understand the options artists have in the local community.

by Jessica Goldfinch

I found myself on the verge of being censored again. At least the proposal was made that some of my artwork should be taken down, that it might be seen as “offensive, vulgar or graphic in nature” and may “not be appropriate” for some viewers. I was handed a contract to sign unlike any other I have seen, one that made the content of my work the gallery director’s responsibility. The gallery director, a friend of mine, was shaken and worried that she might get fired. Mind you, this was a gallery at a college, a higher-learning institution. I wondered who they wanted to protect from my images. Don’t we all have the world at our fingertips via the internet and can’t we conjure up anything we wish to see? And isn’t the function of a college gallery to expose different kinds of contemporary artwork to students as a learning tool?
There is no obscenity warning before you walk into a room of Old Masters’ paintings of nudes. On the other hand, contemporary artists like Lucian Freud, Robert Mapplethorpe and Joel-Peter Witkin usually have a “due to the graphic nature” warning on the gallery door. They all depict naked bodies, so what is the difference? Are nudes from some centuries less naked then others? Do the artists use different paint? What is it that makes one artist “offensive” and another not? After much thought I have concluded that it is not nudity in artwork that is considered offensive. It is the non-idealized figure, the humanized, un-airbrushed depiction of real life that is deemed inappropriate by some viewers.
Conceptually my work explores the physical, biological nature of our bodies in relation to our own mortality. I grew up in the real world and not some sugar-coated version of it, and I still live in that world. Humans are complex and have imperfections and I believe that instead of hiding our defects and letting them eat away at us we should embraced those imperfections and live with them because they are part of us. Imperfections are what make us individuals; if we were all perfect, we would all be exactly the same. Our imperfections are also reminders that we are mortal, reminders of the vulgar fact that one day we may become sick, useless and unnecessary. It is this path to oblivion, the reminder of death and suffering, that offends some people. This is the graphic nature referred to in the warning on the gallery door.
So for this exhibition I was placed in the position of
a. Taking down the “offensive” pieces, thus compromising my artistic vision
b. Taking down all my work and not having the show
c. Neither, and have my gallery-director friend worry about losing her job

Learning from Freud, Lucien that is, I suggested a compromise in the form of a warning at the door. The sign went up, the opening was packed, teachers assigned essays on the show, classes were brought to view the work and opinions were offered, discussion ensued. This is what a college gallery is meant to be. Unfortunately my friend has since resigned as director, a loss not just for her personally but for the students of the collage and for our community at large. She had enough wisdom and bravery to try and truly educate and allow students to decide for themselves the vast questions about art and meaning.
As for me, I don’t want to make pretty pictures; I want to make you think. If in doing so I have to lure you away from your safety zone, unsettle your emotions and beckon you into my graphic nature, then so be it. I aspire to investigate the tension between the beautiful and the disturbing as a metaphor for life, because without true sorrow we can never find true happiness. Artists choose what to make their art about; I make mine about the question of what it means to be human, and ultimately, I think that what unsettles viewers most about my work is that I don’t answer that question. If this is what it means to be a “difficult artist” then I will embrace that mark as I do my other so-called imperfections. Because my work provokes thought, because I choose to question this mortal coil rather than deny it or idealize it, I think I will always have that warning sign put on that gallery door.