A book by an Italian curator raises important question on whether “offensive” art should really be excluded from museums and exhibitions.
by Massimo Introvigne
Most of us are familiar with the Polynesian girls splendidly painted by Paul Gauguin (1848–1903). But perhaps only a minority has followed the controversy started by some art critics and curators, who call for removing these paintings from museums. A good numbers of these girls appear to be minor, perhaps Gauguin slept with them, and at any rate he looked at them with a “pedophile” gaze. Or so some claim.
This incident inspires the cover of an interesting book by Italian curator Luca Beatrice, Arte è libertà? (Is Art Freedom? – Rome and Cesena: Giubilei Regnani, 2020), which I believe should be discussed in Bitter Winter because a good part of it has to do with the interaction, and possible conflict, between artistic freedom and religious liberty.
Beatrice is mightily annoyed by censorship, which also targeted some of his exhibitions. It notices that today censorship is promoted in the name of feminism or the politically correct, which explains why Gauguin or Balthus (1908–2001), another artist who liked to paint naked young girls, are often targeted. When Beatrice started his career, prudery came from the right rather from the left, and often from organized religion. But things were, and are, more confused than they may seem. Beatrice recalls an incident of 2015, when the city of Torino, Italy, organized an exhibition of Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka (1898–1980), which included naked portraits of young girls and prostitutes. The exhibition coincided with Pope Francis’ visit to Torino, and the city decided to cover its posters not to offend the visiting Pope. It would seem a case of religion oppressing artistic freedom. Except that, as Beatrice correctly recalls, the Pope could not have cared less for some posters about an art exhibition. In fact, the decision came from secular authorities representing a left-wing city administration.
Censoring nakedness, something that today comes often from the implacable algorithms of Facebook and Twitter, may in fact end up damaging both artistic freedom and religion. One spectacular example is Facebook’s censorship of the Tryptic of the Descent from the Cross, a masterpiece of Christian art by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), which is in Antwerp’s Catholic cathedral. Facebook’s algorithm found Jesus just a little bit too naked. In this case, the Flemish Tourist Office that had been so censored turned Facebook’s gaucherie into a publicity campaign, but the social network algorithms (used because they are less expensive than human beings) do cause problems. In 2019, I had most of my images of the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, that my religious studies colleagues would probably have liked to see, removed from Facebook because Hindu holy men participate to the celebrations naked—nor do they plan to dress to please the algorithm.
Censoring nudity also makes it impossible to document Greek, Roman, and other religions. This does not happen on Facebook only. In 2016, when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited the Capitoline Museums in Rome, statues of naked Venuses and other Roman gods and goddesses were covered by plastic cubes not to offend the visitor. Again, as Beatrice notes, there is no evidence that Rouhani or the Iranian Embassy had requested this, and it looks like the decision was independently taken by the (left-wing) Italian government of the time.
The truth is that Greek and Roman gods and demigods often behaved in a way that would not be approved by the MeToo movement. Yet, Greek-Roman mythology is such an integral part of European visual arts that it would seem difficult to eliminate it altogether. Take the story of Hylas, the son of a king and a nymph who developed a homoerotic relationship with Heracles. Displeased with this, the nymphs kidnapped Hylas, trying to compel him to love women rather than men, and shut his mouth underwater while he was crying for Heracles. Both the story and the nymphs’ nudity in its usual artistic renderings are not politically correct. Yet, the decision of the Manchester Art Gallery to remove from the museum’s walls the famous painting Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), a fellow traveler of the Pre-Raphaelites, was, as Beatrice suggests, highly questionable (after widespread protest, the painting has since returned where it was).
What is valuable in Beatrice’s book is that, although he reports how he decided to devote his life to art because he liked its provocative side, he does not claim that everything should be tolerated under the banner of artistic freedom. He examines a series of products by contemporary artists that he regards as really offensive to the average citizen because of their use of pornography or violence that are not justified by any redeeming artistic value. These works can be exhibited, the curator says (after all, millions access every day pornographic Web sites), but privately and for adults who know what they will see rather than in public museums or exhibitions open to everybody, including minors.
He is also not totally sure in which category some works should be classified. He believes the jury is still out for Piss Christ by American photographer Andres Serrano, the picture of a crucifix submerged in a liquid that purports to be human urine, “an outdated classic of provocation” that still creates controversy every time it is exhibited. Those who regard it as gratuitous profanity, Beatrice says, have their good reasons, as do those who believe the philosophical explanations by Serrano, who claims to be a Christian who produced a work aimed at denouncing the vulgarity of Christian kitsch.
Beatrice has several doubts about the equally famous The Holy Virgin Mary by British-Nigerian artist Chris Ofili, a bi-dimensional work where a sexualized Virgin Mary is surrounded by pornographic images and elephant dung. He finds some of its features “outrageous,” although he also considers how scandal may be used to increase the commercial value of some works. He states that the commercial value of The Holy Virgin Mary is “close to $2.5 million.” In fact, it was sold in 2015 for $ 4 million, and is actually at MOMA in New York.
Many would agree, and others disagree, with how Beatrice assesses single works of modern art, trying to distinguish between “blasphemies such as those pronounced when swearing, in Italy normally because of a soccer game”—which do not deserve protection in the name of artistic freedom, nor should be exhibited in government-supported museums or exhibitions, no matter how much some collectors would pay for them—and “philosophical blasphemy” in the style of Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844–1900) The Antichrist, which may be disturbing but is also part of world culture. In the case of Piss Christ and Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, Beatrice believes that those who place them in the former rather in the latter category do have valid arguments. They are not simply bigoted religionists and enemies of artistic freedom.
Beatrice stays away from the question of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, because his interest is in museum-quality classic and modern art. His book would at least persuade readers that the interaction between religious liberty and artistic freedom is extremely complicated. Today artists are more often censored in the name of political correctness, feminism, and the MeToo movement than in the name of religion, and religious works of art may be among the victims of such censorship. On the other hand, religious liberty may also be violated by gratuitous offenses against religion, crude blasphemies that is legally and aesthetically difficult to distinguish from provocative and disturbing works that nonetheless belong to the field of art. Beatrice does not solve these problems. But in showing that solutions are not easy lies precisely the value of his book.