Beauty & Pain: The Bizarre Love Triangle of Art, Abuse, and the Museum

In the final weeks of my History of Exhibitions course, we discussed the art of Robert Mapplethorpe. For those who may be unfamiliar, Mapplethorpe was a fine art photographer who specialized in human figures and the artistic photographic rendering of flowers. One of his works’ central themes was sex and human sexuality. He has become particularly infamous for his honest and graphic portrayal of BDSM, the definition of which I have linked to in cases of young readers. He took particular interest in the male body, photographing himself as well as other men in compromising, sensual, and provocative positions.

In class, we focused our discussions around Mapplethorpe’s exhibition “The Perfect Moment,” which included some of his most controversial works. In Washington, D.C., the Corcoran Gallery canceled the exhibit at the last minute. In Cincinnati, the same exhibition led to the arrest of the Contemporary Art Center’s then director Dennis Barrie, who was subsequently put on trial on obscenity charges.

In protest, Corcoran students projected photographs from “The Perfect Moment” onto the building’s exterior. Photo by Carol Guzy, Courtesy of the Washington Post. 

The art community put together an extremely competent, logical and well-researched defense case, and ultimately the jury ruled in favor of Barrie, and on a larger scale, in favor of free expression through art. The case relied on both expert analysis of the photographs’ artistic merits, and on the testimony of several of its’ subjects, all of whom were comfortable and pleased with their experiences with the photographer.

Regardless of your opinion on Mapplethorpe’s work or your individual point of view regarding controversial and sexually explicit art, this case brought up important topics of conversation that the art world is still struggling to answer. Contemporary art is frequently under fire regarding its tendency toward controversial subject matter. The techniques artists employ to create their work cannot be condemned by blanket statements, but should nevertheless be critically examined in order to ensure that no abuses are being committed.

Although the art world undoubtedly groans at the thought of having to defend itself in yet more obscenity cases, given the freedom of expression afforded to all Americans, perhaps anti-obscenity lobbyists, however misguided, are onto something. Perhaps the process by which art is created should continue to be critically examined in order to ensure that all parties’ civil rights are protected.

Two fairly recent examples of art-making that may have benefited from such critical examination come to mind. The first concerns ongoing allegations of abuse and harassment by famous photographer Terry Richardson. His subject matter, interestingly enough, is similar to that of Mapplethorpe: portraits and sexualized bodies. What is not similar is the consistency of his subjects’ defense of his work as purely art.

Richardson himself has been somewhat opaque in discussing his alleged treatment of his models. Subjects of his who have broken their silence have clear and explicit reasons for accusing him of abuse. They have described their painful experiences in detail. Richardson has met their accusations with counter-accusations of weak morals and poor decision-making skills. The museum world has determined him to be an artist first, abuser second – his work has remained consistently on display since these allegations surfaced [1][2][3].

The second example was an incident I stumbled upon in the midst of researching paper on performance art retrospectives. Brazilian artist Laura Lima has recently been under fire for allegedly pressuring performance artists hired for her ICA Miami exhibit “The Inverse” to penetrate themselves with a piece of rope as part of her installation. Similar to Richardson, when met with these accusations, Lima denied such incidents occurring.

A performance artist at work in Lima’s “The Inverse.” Photo by Jess Swanson, Courtesy of the Miami New Times. 

The two allegedly harassed women, however, mentioned observing that the museum staff may have been uncomfortable with Lima’s intended roles for her performers, although they did not explicitly address their concerns in the artist’s presence. One of the women also mentioned feeling comfortable with signing the participation waiver that freed the artist and the institution of liability because it explicitly stated that “any decision by the Contractor to [intimately engage with the work] is made entirely by the Contractor’s own free will” [4].

No doubt performance art often skirts a thin line of abuse – the artist, however, is often the one making the decision to skirt that line. When a hired performer with rights of his or her own is coerced or forced to compromise her own rights in favor of the art she has been asked to embody, the focus of the conversation should turn away from the message of the art and toward the assurance of the performers’ safety and security above all else. Lima’s exhibition remained on display at the ICA Miami until the end of October of this year, and the institution maintains consistency in sharing only positive press retroactively.

Museums and galleries that would never think to exhibit such horrifying examples of abusive practices as snuff films should also reconsider the exhibition of works by artists accused of sexual abuse or harassment. The same rules that apply to every other member of society apply to artists as well. No one’s creativity is so sacred as to bestow upon them the right to abuse, violate, or endanger other members of their society.

End Notes






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