Controversies in Contemporary Art

Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ"

Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ 

Piss Christ is a cibachrome print of a wood and plastic crucifix submerged in artist Andre Serrano’s urine, that won Serrano an art award and a $15,000 fellowship from the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SCCA). The awards were funded with money from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and this money also went to fund a three-day show that exhibited and celebrated all of the winners.

The winners’ exhibition was closed in January of 1989, and it wasn’t until spring of that year that the National Endowment for the Arts was bombarded with letters from two hundred members of congress. These letters demanded an explanation of why federal dollars were used to support a work of art that was insulting to the Christian faith. Spearheading the protests against Piss Christ and the National Endowment for the Arts were Senators Alfonse D’Amato and Jessie Helms, and the NEA also caught heat from fundamentalist Christian organisations.


Robert MapplethorpeRobert Mapplethorpe’s “The Perfect Moment”

In the fall of 1988, just before the controversy arose around Serrano’s Piss Christ, the Philadelphia Center for Contemporary art was compiling photographs of artist Robert Mapplethorpe for an exhibition called “The Perfect Moment.” This particular exhibition was celebrating every subject that Mapplethorpe had captured in his photographs, including the more controversial photographs of nude children and gay male sadomasochism. Using a $30,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Philadelphia Centre for Contemporary Art organised and sponsored the exhibition that was due to travel across America.

Less than a month before it was coming to their city the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. cancelled the show. This was especially shocking because between the time that the show opened in Philadelphia and the scheduled Corcoran show on July 1st, 1989, Robert Mapplethorpe sadly died of AIDS. The director of the Corcoran claimed that the cancellation was not the result of censorship, but that “the Gallery’s Board of Trustees did not want the museum embroiled in a political battle over funding of artistic work that may offend people.”

Senator Helms, who was leading the charge against the National Endowment for the Arts for Serrano’s Piss Christ, began lobbying for a bill that would cut NEA funding equal to the amount that would normally go to both the Southeastern and Philadelphia Centres for Contemporary Art. The same bill would prohibit the two not-for-profit institutions from applying for grant money for the next five years. Later that year, The Perfect Moment raised issues at its show in Cincinnati, and the curator of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Centre was actually arrested for photographs that the police deemed obscene. The curator and the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Centre were released of all charges.


Marcus Harvey's "Myra"

Marcus Harvey’s Myra

This  9 x 11 ft (2.7 x 3.4m) painting depicts the notorious “Moors Murders” killer Myra Hindley. Artist Marcus Harvey used casts of infant handprints to create a mosaic semblance to Hindley’s iconic mugshot that was splashed all over the British press for decades after her conviction. When the painting was exhibited in Sensation at the Royal Academy of Art in 1997, four members of the Royal Academy resigned in protest against the painting’s inclusion. The Metropolitan Police inspected the exhibition but found no grounds to prosecute under the Obscene Publications Act.

The mother of one of Hindley’s victims asked that the painting be removed from the exhibition, and joined the group Mothers Against Murder and Aggression who picketed the first day of the show. Windows at Burlington House were smashed, and two artists vandalized the work—one with paint, and the other with eggs—on the opening day of the exhibition. When the painting was restored and returned to the exhibition, it necessitated a plastic shield and security guards on its flanks. Myra herself wrote from prison that the portrait be removed, stating the work was a “sole disregard not only for the emotional pain and trauma that would inevitably be experienced by the families of the Moors Victims but also the families of any child victim.” Harvey’s Myra ultimately remained in the show.


Chris Ofili's "Holy Virgin Mary"

Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary

Chris Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary” was also included in the “Sensation” exhibition, but didn’t cause controversy until reaching the Brooklyn Museum in New York. The painting depicts a woman wearing a blue robe, like traditional of paintings of the Holy Virgin, yet unlike other paintings of Mary it also included elephant dung and pornographic images. This mixture of the sacred and profane caused such a stir in New York that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani brought a court case against the Brooklyn Museum and called the work “sick” and “disgusting.” Giuliani attempted to withdraw the $7 million a year grant from the museum, and to evict the Brooklyn Museum from what had been it’s home for over 100 years. Ultimately the Museum Director Arnold L. Lehman filed a lawsuit against Giuliani for a breach of the first amendment and won. Though the painting was protected by a plexiglass screen, it was smeared with white paint in December 1999, and horse manure was thrown at the museum later that year due to the painting’s  supposed “Catholic bashing.”



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