Saturday, August 27, 2016

To Penis or not to Penis – is that really the question?

Currently there is quite a bit of commotion about censorship in the AQS show in Grand Rapids, Michigan, regarding the piece “I was not wearing a life jacket” by Kathy Nida, which is (a juried) part of the “People and Portraits” exhibition by SAQA. A detailed account of the proceedings can be found on the SAQA blog here.  Several entries on Kathy Nida’s blog   cover the development of the removal, and give a personal account of the distress she has been going through

I fully sympathize with Kathy Nida in this unpleasant affair and am appalled that a venue which claims to be showing art would be so inconsistent in their approach and withdraw a piece of art from a juried show just because one person insisted that this piece was an affront.

Yes, frequently art is controversial, it causes discussions, and it must stay out there for this purpose. (It might have been a way to ‘hide’ the quilt in a cubicle with signs around it saying “Danger! This piece is ruminated to depict a penis, although the artist maker says there isn’t one.” Or something like that. After all, there are breasts to be seen on that quilt as well!) Why go all the way to rob many many other visitors of the event of the chance to see this piece and come to their own conclusions?

Yes, censorship is terrible, and this was a case of censorship. In a country that holds pride on their tradition of freedom of speech. (And likes to go around telling other countries what to do, and how.)
But there is a completely different issue behind this whole affair, which I find even more troubling than the fact that a decision was taken to not show a piece of art in public. Because it was not the board of the venue itself that thought about and then decided on the potentially provocative or too liberally nude character of the quilt in question. This is a case of bad-mouthing a piece of art into a state of non-acceptability by a single person, and – and this is the real issue at stake – the maker’s statement that this is not the case is not being heard. That’s denunciation. 
Or, to put it into a biblical perspective, a breach of the eighth commandment that thou shalt not talk wrongly against thy neighbors. (Sorry – don’t know the exact English formulation as my religious education way back then was in German...)
Or, to put it into a political-historical perspective, a case of residue McCarthyism at its worst, alive and kicking.

We have had too many instance of this kind of treatment between people in the world already. To name only a few, Nazi-times in Germany, Stalin’s rule of terror in the USSR, in Iran during the years after the Islamic Revolution, and yes, during the times of McCarthy in the US. And I am sure one could name many more. The case at issue here is that an act of denunciation by a single person is being acted upon whereas the ‘culprit’ does not get a voice, is not believed, but punished.
Good for Kathy Nida that her work has received a lot of attention through this, I am sure this will help her career quite a bit.
But justice and democracy have suffered a severe blow. Because democracy also means that everybody has the same right to look at things and learn from them, come to an individual conclusion. If one single person cannot deal with interpretating a modern piece of art it is not fair to the others to prevent them from having the same chance. That’s fundamentalism in a severe case.

1 comment:

  1. This is not the first time AQS has done this. Years ago they removed Jonathan Shannon's Day of the Dead quilt from their Paducah show because it dealt with AIDS.
    That was when I quit buying from them.