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National Portrait Gallery Jesus video controversy: A brief history of outrage over art

December 1, 2010 - 01:57 PM
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'Self-Portrait' by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1975.
'Self-Portrait' by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1975.

Hey America: Welcome to the culture wars, round three. Yesterday, Republican congressmen and religious groups condemned the Portrait Gallery's exhibition Hide/Seek for containing homoerotic and religious imagery. The exhibition is the first major museum show about GLBT identity. Political threats to cut funding and remove artwork are a battle we've fought every decade since the 80s (an era that, incidentally, spawned most of the offending artwork in the Hide/Seek show). Here's a sampling of art that's offended our delicate sensibilities over the past 30 years:

1981-1989 – Tilted Arc, Richard Serra. This 120-foot-long plate of steel was commissioned by the General Services Administration for the Federal Plaza in New York. There were a host of reasons that led to the piece's removal: Workers disliked walking the whole way around it, and said that it attracted graffiti and rats, while Judge Edward Re objected to the $175,000 cost of the sculpture. Despite support for the sculpture in a public hearing, officials decided to remove it at a cost of $35,000. Serra appealed the decision, but lost, and it was removed on March 15, 1989.

1989 – Piss Christ, Andres Serrano. The artist photographed a crucifix in a yellow substance that he described as his own urine. When the photo, Piss Christ, was entered in the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art's "Awards in the Visual Arts" competition, which was sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, there was a massive political outcry that federal funds were going towards art that congressmen deemed obscene. The photo was ripped up on the Senate floor by Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, and inspired Jesse Helms to declare, "He is not an artist, he is a jerk." Piss Christ also spurred Helms' campaign to cut the NEA's funding.

1989 – The Perfect Moment, Robert Mapplethorpe. Thanks to the Piss Christ outrage, Mapplethorpe's retrospective, A Perfect Moment, came under fire when it was scheduled for the Corcoran Museum only a few months after the artist's death from AIDS. Mapplethorpe's work is known for its homosexual imagery, and Rep. Dick Armey, a Republican, sent a letter signed by 107 representatives to the NEA to call attention to the show. He labeled the works of both Mapplethorpe and Serrano as "morally reprehensible trash." Bowing to the pressure, Director Christina Orr-Cahall cancelled the show, but then faced a massive counter-protest from the art community, who staged demonstrations, and even projected Mapplethorpe's images on the Corcoran facade the night the show was scheduled to open. The Washington Project for the Arts gained national attention for taking the show off of the Corcoran's hands, a victory they celebrate in their current 35-year celebration exhibition, Catalyst.

1999 – The Holy Virgin Mary, Chris Ofili. Sensation, a show of young British artists from the Saatchi Gallery, caused no stir in London. But when it came to the Brooklyn Museum ten years ago, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani saw Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary, an image of the Madonna with elephant dung and pornographic images affixed to the canvas, and vowed to cut the Brooklyn Museum's funding. Meanwhile, his outrage made the exhibit more popular, and it received rave reviews. Meanwhile, Giuliani froze the museum's funding, but was ordered to restore it after a federal judge ruled that he violated the First Amendment. Judge Nina Gershon wrote, "'There is no federal constitutional issue more grave than the effort by government officials to censor works of expression and to threaten the vitality of a major cultural institution as punishment for failing to abide by governmental demands for orthodoxy.''

2001 – Yo Mama's Last Supper, Renee Cox. Cox recreated the tableau of DaVinci's Last Supper, but in her photograph, 12 black men are the disciples, and she stands, nude, in the place of Jesus. The photo was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, like Sensations, and Cox endured similar outrage from Giuliani. The mayor called for a commission to set ''decency standards,'' and the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights called her an anti-Catholic propagandist. At a panel discussion, Cox said she planned to send the Catholic League ''a thank-you note at the end saying, 'Thanks for all the free publicity.' ''

2002 – Tumbling Woman, Eric Fischl. The artist sculpted his Tumbling Woman from a model rolling around on his floor, but said that it was inspired by the people who were forced to jump from the Twin Towers on Sept. 11. Tumbling Woman debuted at Rockefeller Center a year later, and was covered up by a cloth within a week after public outcry, The sculpture was removed soon after. Fischl told ArtInfo that he sculpted the piece to make the incomprehensible atrocity of the jumpers more real. "Immediately everyone started to mourn the loss of the buildings, which totally shifted it over to a symbolic loss rather than a real one. To me, that seemed wrong," he said.

2006 – Monument to Pro-Life: The Birth of Sean Preston, Daniel Edwards. Anti-abortion artist Edwards sculpted Britney Spears pregnant, naked, and crouching on a bearskin rug to give birth to her son, Sean Preston, whose head is crowning. Capla Kesting Fine Art received about 5,000 phone calls and e-mail messages about the sculpture, mostly negative. Right to Life Committee in Manhattan supported the sculpture, but then began to distance itself once public outcry grew. Edwards later sculpted Angelina Jolie nude, with one of her twins nursing at each breast.

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