Sunday, May 14, 2006

New York vs. Art Students

It's always exciting when artists try to provoke the public and which ever administration. It can save unimaginative art from irrelevancy.

This time the Brooklyn parks commissioner took the bait, according to the New York Times. The exhibit of Brooklyn College students art at a city building by the Brooklyn Bridge "featured a penis sculpture, a caged rat and a sexually charged video" (and "watercolor paintings of gay sex," says the Seattle Post Intelligencer).

The college has been using the public building, a World War II memorial, for six years for these student exhibits. The commissioner was worried about families seeing the sexually explicit art.

The show, called "Plan B," eventually moved to the campus. The students set up a blog -- Plan C(ensored) to protest the park commisioner's locking up of the building -- with their art still inside. The student bloggers posted an article --more of an editorial -- from the Riverdale Press that said:

"The commissioner-turned-critic apparently didn’t like the image of a penis with homoerotic overtones or a video on Biblical themes that included sexually-charged footage of Eve in the garden. Next thing the students knew, a locksmith was changing the locks on the gallery, effectively impounding their work."

Hmm. You think it was the penis?

Student art is a strange thing. I went to a University of Minnesota student art show at the end of last school year. I went to see a friend's work, which I was relieved to find I liked. I found the art that perplexed me the most was art that was based on ideas more than on a combination of an idea and skilled method.

I walked by a young woman who was trying to explain her art to an older woman who must have been her grandmother. How do you explain plaster casts of your underwear and bras to a seventy year-old? She didn't seem to know either, but she was very ernest in her efforts.

There was a video installation projected ten feet high onto a white wall in which a woman recorded herself slowly shaving all of her body hair. Yes, that too. Being a good Minnesota boy, I dutifully averted my eyes. Instead I concentrated on the two men -- father and son? -- who were watching the video with an intensity that they could have been arrested for. And the older one was videotaping it. Sick.

So what is the difference between art and porn? I think part of it has to do with intention. Few people will label material created solely for sexual gratification as art. But then, these labels are a matter of personal opinion. Liberals will seldom contest labels "artists" give themselves -- we don't want to hurt anyone's feelings or trample on anyone's rights. But by being so generous, we open the category so wide we lose our bearings.

Back to the Brooklyn show. The students got even more upset when the parks department moved all their art, apparently damaging some of it. In an anonymous letter posted on the blog, a "concerned community member" wrote:

"For your information, your Art department was founded by people escaping fascist Germany for freedom here in Brooklyn. I am dumbfounded that artwork from the students of this same department has been censored by a government and removed by an academic administration that are entrusted, each in their own way, with protecting that important legacy. Then, continue the episode with the fact that the art was being exhibited in a hall commemorating our country's freedoms, as fought for by WWII soldiers (I am the son of a veteran!), and the whole event you perpetrated is vile. Those soldiers died for ideals obviously too grand for you or Bloomberg and Benepe and their cronies to understand or respect."

Any time someone compares art criticism or censorship to fascism, beware. It's a dodge and a cheapshot.

Both sides are being disingenuous. Orthodoxy in enforcing family-friendly content in public areas is silly and any time conservatives and officials cry out about obscene art, they are merely promoting said art. On the other side, subjecting the world to your self-indulgent sexual expressions is not your right -- don't be surprised when you rankle some codgers.

The first problem in a situtation like this is that the two sides didn't explain themselves to each other. They never got a chance because the parks commissioner simply locked the building and left. That isn't fair. The solution should have been a sign at the door saying the college art show was up for a few weeks, and that it had some graphic sex in it. Go in at your own discretion.

Discretion is what's missing from these debates these days. It's a good thing more of us don't have the power to shut down everything that offends us. Liberals need to be more realistic and stop acting surprised when penises and sexy bible stories offend people. Conservatives need to avert their eyes when they see something they don't like instead of petitioning to have it removed.

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