American Museums: All Talk, No Walk
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Good art, and I mean really good art, often sparks controversy when it's unveiled to the public, and the response of the powers that be to such controversy is very telling. French Emperor Napoleon III became furious at Gustave Courbet's The Bathers with its in-your-face, un-idealized depiction of female nudity. During his visit to the Salon, he literally whipped the painting with his riding crop. Let me also remind you of the persecution of the avant-garde artists by Hitler and Stalin.
So let's now take a look at what's been happening here in the land of the brave and free. David Alfaro Siqueiros' mural in downtown L.A. was whitewashed soon after it was finished in 1932 because it offended authorities with its depiction of a crucified Indian peasant with an image of an eagle above his head as a symbol of American imperialism. The lengthy restoration of this mural, funded by the Getty, is supposed to be finished within a year or two, but here's the twist: at this very moment, another mural with a strong political message is being whitewashed in downtown L.A.
Just a few short blocks away from the Siqueiros work, the huge new mural on the wall of MOCA's Geffen Contemporary has been deemed "insensitive" to the surrounding community. The offending mural, made by Italian graffiti artist Blu, depicted multiple military coffins draped with large dollar bills in place of flags. Indeed, in close proximity to this mural are the Veteran's Affairs Building and a monument to Japanese-American soldiers from World War II. Therefore, in fear of possible objections, MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch ordered the mural to be immediately destroyed -- even before any complaints actually surfaced. All that doesn't bode well for MOCA's upcoming exhibition Art in the Streets which this Italian artist was supposed to be a part of.
One wonders how a museum can even think about organizing an exhibition of Street Art without being prepared for possible, if not inevitable, controversy. Meaningful, good Street Art must have an edge to be worthy of street cred. You shouldn't organize a rap concert if you're afraid to hear "bitch," "hoe," or the "N" word.
A few days ago in Washington, the daring work by David Wojnarowicz, depicting a crucifix crawling with ants, was yanked from the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. At least this time, the complaint was real, not imagined, and came from conservative members of Congress objecting on religious grounds.
I'm afraid that we Americans -- in matters of art and culture -- have become so sensitive, so wimpy, that we are in danger of ending up with art in the public arena that avoids controversy at all costs, and the name for such ‘neutered' art is irrelevant art, or simply, bad art.
A few years ago, the high-profile traveling exhibition of Picasso's erotic works came to Canada, but none of the American museums had the balls to host it here. Isn't it time for us in this country to grow up and be able to confront our fears and limitations in the multifaceted big mirror held up in front of our faces by contemporary artists?
To see images discussed in Art Talk, go to KCRW.com/ArtTalk.
Banner image: Street artist Blu's mural on MOCA's north wall was painted over by order of museum director Jeffrey Deitch