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Sights of Contention :
Mark Jarzombek
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Perhaps the most paradigmatic example of a critique of art based on location was that of the twelfth-century Cistercian theologian, Bernard of Clairvaux. He protested against the newly popular sculptural ornamentation in the capitals of columns, like those lining the nave of churches such as the Cathedral of Autun in southern France. The grotesque animals that one can see there were, according to his argument, inconsistent with the image one should have of God's work. Because the highest form of human contemplation takes place in the church, only the highest form of representation should be visible. 
    Why do the studious monks have to face such ridiculous monstrosities? What is the point of this deformed beauty, this elegant deformity? Those loutish apes? The savage lions? The monstrous centaurs? The half men? The spotted tigers? You can see a head with many bodies, or a body with many heads. Here we espy an animal with a serpent's tail, there a fish with an animal's head. There we have a beast with a horse in front and a shegoat behind; and here a horned animal followed with hind-quarters like a horse. . . .  In the name of God! If we are not ashamed at its foolishness, why at least are we not angry at the expense?12 
Bernard wanted to remind the monks that just because these images may be in the physical space of a church, it doesn't mean that the church is their real context. These grotesqueries belong to the demonic world outside the boundaries of the church, and the only reason one can find them in churches is because monks have lost the desire or perhaps the ability to maintain a clear separation. 

The importance Bernard gave to the equation of a physical and moral boundary in critiquing art was also fundamental to the prosecution's case against the Contemporary Arts Center; though the museum is not a place for exalted moral contemplation, it can be viewed as a public space that should be under the control of a higher moral authority. The museum was a host body that had been contaminated by a disease. The lawsuit was simply going to do what the museum should have done to itself. The Cincinnati lawyers did not want to impose regulations on the museum, but claimed that just as individuals under the guidance of religion suppress their baser instincts, so too should society, and thus so too should the important institutions, especially those with an educative mission. The prosecution legitimated its call for self-discipline (or what someone else might call censorship) by arguing that the museum has no right to act individualistically, much less under the influence of aAppendx 2 page break 61 | 62 "special interest group," but that it (like the bishop of the Cathedral of Autun) has to answer to "community values." After all, it was a museum in Cincinnati, not New York City. Left unstated but more than apparent was that the term "community values" stood for conservative community values. If Janet Kardon, who curated the show, was a censor in the liberal, special interest cause, then what was wrong with the community wanting to censor the show in the conservative cause? Defense attorney Marc Mezibov was right to notice the drift of Prouty's argument and bring it to the attention of the court. 

    Prouty:  What came or did not come into the local area was purely up to your  [Mrs. Kardon's] discretion; is that correct?  

    Mezibov:  Objection. It is as if Mrs. Kardon was the censor.  
    The Court:  Sustained.  

    Prouty:  Does the director or curator have discretion as to what to bring or not bring into a particular area? . . . What is more important, the art or the values of the community?13 

Some would argue that far from being religious fanaticism, this call for self-control is essential to the functioning of democracy. Certainly John Dewey, the great philosopher and pedagogue, linked ethical actions and moral responsibility to the growth of American democracy. In this context, the museum should seek to make a positive contribution to society through self-policing. We have become, whatever our political persuasion, quite used to this in the United States, so much so that American visitors to Denmark are shocked to discover that the Museum of Erotic Art not only allows children in its doors, but gives special tours to high school students. In the United States, visual propriety and moral propriety are thought to be one and the same, especially when they are linked to ideas of social orderliness. From this perspective, the demands by the Cincinnati moralists were not out of keeping with our national tradition. And not too long ago, when we lived in a simpler age perhaps, many museum professionals would have agreed that the role of the museum was to uphold moral goals. Ananda K. Coomaraswawy, from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, explained in a 1941 article entitled "Why Exhibit Works of Art?" that the museum "has to tell them [the public] the painful truth, that most of these works of art are about God, which we never mention in polite society. . . . If we offer an education [in the museum] this will be an education in philosophy, i.e. an ontology and theology and the map of life, and a wisdom to be applied to everyday matters."14 Appendx 2 page break 62 | 63 

Such ideals would be anachronistic today, but not for the conservative right, which felt that the Contemporary Arts Center had gone public in the bad sense—namely, that it was a place where good and evil were allowed to mix indiscriminately. Mark Twain parodied just this interpretation of the museum in his wonderful description of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence; it was a place to see not high art but erotic nudity.  This was the flip side of Bernard's experiences in the church, for whereas the church architects used the sanctity of the church to protect and disguise the enemy, at the Uffizi the curators shamelessly exhibited works that would have been better suited, so Twain comments, to a public bath house. If the Cathedral of Autun was the crack that let in moral confusions, the Uffizi was the floodgate. 

    You enter [the Uffizi in Florence]. . . and there you may look your fill upon the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses—Titian's Venus . . . How should I describe her—just to see what a holy indignation I could stir up on the world, yet the world is willing to let its sons and its daughters and itself look at Titian's beast, but won't stand a description of it in words . . . Without any question it was painting for a bagno [public bath house] and it was probably refused because it was a trifle too strong. In truth, it is a trifle too strong for any place but a public art gallery.15 
Just as Twain felt that the Uffizi was contributing to moral decline by not adequately scrutinizing the content of the pictures, the prosecution lawyers felt that the Contemporary Arts Center falsely contextualized Mapplethorpe's photographs as "works of art" when they clearly were not. Whatever their status was inside of the museum, they were not art on the outside where, like Titian's Venus, they were "unspeakable" in their obscenity. It would be clear to the jury, Prouty hoped, that Mapplethorpe's photographs were more appropriate for the walls of a bath house (on Gay Street in New York City, that is) than for the walls of a museum in Cincinnati. To prove this, the prosecution brought in as "expert witnesses" members of the Cincinnati Vice Squad. After all, they knew what life on the dark side really was. 
    Don Ruberg (Police Officer):It is a picture of an individual, . . . bent over with what appears to be a bullwhip stuck in his anal area.  

    Prouty:Have you ever heard of fisting?  

    Ruberg:It is a practice within the gay community where a fist is inserted . . . 

    Prouty:What is the purpose of this activity? Appendx 2 page break 63 | 64 

    Sirkin:Objection!Unless he is qualified as an expert . . . (laughter in the courtroom)16

To fight these challenges, the defense lawyers relied heavily on the testimony of the museum directors. It was the success of these directors in establishing their arguments that led to the speedy conclusion of the trial and the acquittal of Dennis Barrie. Martin Friedman (Director of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis), Evan Hopkins Turner (Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art), John Walsh (director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu), and others persuasively argued that the photographs could not be discussed out of the context of an exhibition that was conceived as a retrospective of the artist's life work. They showed how curatorial decisions were made according to aesthetic and museum-professional reasons, which were tied neither to personal notions of obscenity nor to community politics. They discussed the role of the museum as an educative institution (as opposed to an island of permissiveness à la the Uffizi), and explained that the museum was not outside the boundaries of moral propriety and thus not a conspirator in social demise (à la the Cathedral of Autun). The museum directors also demonstrated that what could be seen in the negative as permissiveness should be seen in the positive as tolerance. Tolerance is a difficult issue to bring up in a legal proceeding, as it is not a legal matter. Unlike freedom of speech, it is not protected or defined by the Constitution, as it is assumed to be a matter of local custom. Nonetheless, museums have played an important role in expanding our notions of tolerance. We no longer spit at Expressionist paintings, and most of us think that Picasso was a good artist and are no longer shocked by his own graphic use of obscenities. Martin Friedman made just this point in his testimony before the court. 
    [Mapplethorpe's work] is an art that challenges existing norms. But we are used to that in the history of art. We're used to this in the work of Picasso, who, virtually canonized at this point, created images that absolutely affronted not just the public, but the art world, by their distortions and aggressiveness. The same could be said for the work of Goya, images of decapitation and mutilation, rape, right down the line.17 
By bringing the museum directors to the stand, the defense attorneys were attempting to counteract the prosecution's attempt to interpret the works in isolation, where, once stripped of their protection, they would be seen for what they truly were. Danto, Appendx 2 page break 64 | 65in his ringing condemnation of the museum directors, failed not only to properly explain the significance of the directors' testimony—which was to keep the photographs conceptually in the museum—but failed to notice the paradox in his own argument. If the museum directors were so terribly alienated from art, why was it that his own experience of Mapplethorpe took place in a museum? Danto made a point of describing his admiration of Mapplethorpe's work, not as something he would put in his own house, or as works that he had seen in the artist's studio, but as works that he had seen and admired on the "brilliantly installed" white walls of the gallery space. Danto, who wanted to have a museum—but without museum directors—saw its space as paradigmatic of democracy, for it was rooted in the principle of enlightened, respectful behavior. 
    One worked one's way past portraits, nudes, and still lifes, some in shaped and classy frames, until one comes to a room, diagonally across from the threshold, of difficult images. . . . It was brilliantly installed. . . There was an absolutely appropriate reverential silence. There were no snorts of outrage, no stifled giggles—simply murmurs. It is a matter of some sadness to me that no one, ever again, will be able to see Mapplethorpe's work in that way.18 [my emphasis] 
The museum, of course, likes to think of itself very much in terms of its own transparency. We are told, in fact, that art needs the museum, not only to protect it from the outside world, but also in order for us to better understand it; criticism, if it is to be conducted in a proper educative manner, must separate the artwork from messy contingencies. Ervin Panofsky, in his Meaning in the Visual Arts (1955), explained that "It is possible to experience every object, naturally or manmade, aesthetically. We do this, to express it as simply as possible, when we just look at it (or listen to it) without relating it, intellectually or emotionally, to anything outside of itself."19  And to do this, we need the museum. But the museum experience is never neutral, and the prosecution's argument was built on this fact. In order to "just look at it," Prouty argued, we have to take the works away from the museum and establish a truly neutral context. But if Danto recognized this maneuver on the part of the prosecution, he neglected to notice that modern art has long accepted the artifice of the museum space and taken it into consideration. We need think only of Duchamp's urinal, a work that came to exemplify the self-consciousness of art that becomes art only once it is installed on a gallery wall, as opposed to the bathroom floor. In the case of Mapplethorpe, his studio photography both elicits and reflects—all too uncomfortably Appendx 2 page break 65 | 66for many—the clean, studiolike environment of the museum space. His photographs are not action shots taken outdoors from a moving car, but indoor shots under highly controlled conditions that, when placed in a museum that itself demands a highly controlled form of isolated viewing, confronts the museumgoer not only with the subject matter of the photographs, but with an experience of the museum as a site where one can be stripped bare and put on display, like the models in the photographs. The museum in this sense was not a passive space, but actively assisted in determining what constituted "art." It did not remove context so as to provide a space for seeing art in politically correct isolation, but to the contrary, provided a context in which to see works in the problematic of that isolation.20 next page
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