Obscenity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Obscenity is in the eye of the beholder, and this has never been clearer to me than during the current Carnegie International. We haven’t gotten many complaints but we have gotten some, and museums—especially those that show contemporary art—are always balancing their concerns for free expression against visitors’ legitimate right to avoid art that they deem offensive. Usually, we opt for signage that warns people about nudity, sexual content, and provocative language.

It surprises me how irate people can become when a piece of art offends them and how certain they are that any sane person would agree. They have a passionate sense of what art is supposed to be, what is appropriate for children, and the values that a museum like CMOA is supposed to uphold. They seem to think that their values are indisputable, but in reality, for everyone who intensely dislikes a work of art, there are those who love it.

Recently I received a complaint from someone who was so certain that I could have no problem identifying the offending work that she described it in a cursory way. I couldn’t place it so I forwarded her email to the curators who were equally perplexed. Finally we settled on an early computer animation by the artist Paul Chan. Acquired out of the 2004 Carnegie International, it is housed in a screening room within the collection galleries. It had a disclaimer at the entrance regarding sexual content, which we have since made larger in the hope that, next time, it won’t be missed. We’re not 100% certain that we’ve got the right work but we did our best.

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Some of the complaints have been about Nicole Eisenman’s installation of paintings and sculpture on the Hall of Sculpture Balcony. I’m sorry about that because it’s a highlight of the 2013 Carnegie International. I always think that seeing work by an artist who can really draw and paint is a bit like watching the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov in his prime leaping across the stage—it can take your breath away. Eisenman is that kind of artist. A group of jurors with extremely varied taste awarded her the 2013 Carnegie Prize. I believe that was because her achievement was so clear. Her art is funny, base, and beautiful all at the same time. Her use of nude figures in her paintings and sculpture has been called obscene, yet the cast of a classical Greek male nude beside them never generates comment. Of course, the classical sculpture is an idealized human form—something none of us can ever attain—whereas Eisenman’s figures are profoundly human. Therein lies the difference between a “nude,” which is unthreatening, and a sculpture or painted figure that is shockingly naked.

Recently a new problem arose: A man who came to an artist’s lecture was deeply offended by the mode of address and the work that was shown. It’s difficult to protect people from a lecture they don’t want to hear. The only option for someone in that situation is to leave—something I’ve certainly done for various reasons at different times. (The event was free but if it wasn’t, we would have returned the cost of the ticket.) Of course, the lecture was filled to the brim with people who wholly supported the work and the artist and were quite vocal about it, and that’s the point. At CMOA, we work to satisfy the needs and desires of various constituencies. The man in question is wholly entitled to his opinion, and we present programs that I’m certain he would enjoy. Some people are looking for provocation and new perspectives, and this lecture was for them.

Programming around the International has been especially rich, and it’s ongoing. The discussion with Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Lê on Wednesday evening March 5 will offer a different—and perhaps provocative—viewpoint on a contentious period in recent American history. I hope you can make it.

Inside the Museum is Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky’s blog about the local and global impacts of the museum and the art world. For past installments, please visit the archive.