Monday, December 11, 2023

When did art become “inappropriate”?

This past summer an artist friend of mine expressed dismay at an art project we were viewing. “It’s inappropriate,” she said. This was not the first time I had recently heard the term “inappropriate,” or a similar term, used by artists or the arts intelligentsia to describe an art work. In a very short list, I’ve heard it in relation to Dana Schutz’s Whitney Biennial painting, Sam Durant’s sculpture at the Walker Art Center, Schutz’s exhibition at the ICA in Boston, the Felix Gonzalez-Torres exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery, teaching methodologies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and of course just recently concerning the Guggenheim’s “Art and China” exhibition and Omer Fast’s Chinatown exhibition. I suppose it would be wise to add the countless demands for safe spaces and “trigger warnings” in art schools and art departments due to “inappropriate” content.

This led me to wonder, when did art become inappropriate? Or perhaps more precisely, when did we, in our art industry (this isn’t an “artworld” anymore), become obsessed with propriety and decorum? After all, the reason I decided to make art my life over twenty-five years ago was precisely because art was the space that had no rules, social niceties, or ethics of comportment (and if there were any, challenging them was certainly welcome). Art was the space where certain individuals—mostly those not bewitched by corporate money and lifestyles–could question any preconceived notion or belief, be it social, cultural, historical or political. These people were called “artists.”

Beliefs that certain artworks are inappropriate, insensitive, shameful, reckless, or violent are beliefs known to be held by the usual suspects (i.e., cultural conservatives and troglodytes, synonymous to many liberals). What is surprising—in fact, startling—is that those same beliefs are now espoused by those with a self-proclaimed investment in art and freedom of thought: artists, curators, writers, and art historians.

How then did we arrive at a moment when a certain sector of the art industry, particularly artists, sees a need to call an artwork “inappropriate,” or go so far as to call for an artwork’s removal or destruction? And when did artists start caring whether their art offended anyone?

More shocking perhaps is that artists have traded art as the space of experimentation and subversion for the preoccupations and strategies of mega for-profit corporations. When the general public has a problem with a corporate advertisement, corporations, such as Nivea, Pepsi, and General Motors usually, albeit not always, capitulate. They cower and grovel to preserve their bottom line, i.e.- profits, of course, but more importantly, to maintain their reputation dictated by consumers, otherwise known as their “brand.” There are, of course, exceptions, such as the Washington Redskins, who don’t care much what non-Redskins fans think. Perhaps it is corporations such as the Redskins that are now the true artists, holding steady to their fan base and a “damn the torpedoes” approach to public relations (their multi-year legal appeal to defend their First Amendment right to register their name as a trademark is but one example).


Ashley Bickerton, Tormented Self-Portrait (Susie at Arles), 1987-1988. Or, the artist as corporation, and the corporation as artist.

Unlike corporations trying to maintain their impeccable brands of sensitivity demanded by shareholders and consumers alike, artists, through their use of the inappropriate, serve a vital function. The inappropriate is a tool that expands and tests the boundaries of culture and, perhaps more importantly, disturbs our facile acceptance of social norms, niceties, codes, laws and regulations.

So why the abhorrence of the inappropriate? Perhaps the answer to what I deem so perplexing is quite simple: art—or more accurately, an artist’s practice—has become structurally identical to corporate practice: a space preoccupied with marketing, sales, product, modes of production, expansion, and public appeasement, i.e., the artist’s main preoccupation is the artist’s brand. Why would an artist, curator, art critic or art historian dare risk their brand on a single painting, sculpture, essay or idea when the halls of academia and malls of commerce beckon?

Of course, this is not to say that artists, curators, and writers can’t be critical of curatorial projects, art criticism, art history and artworks. In fact, there is a dire need for the return of acidic and acrimonious criticism. One could say that the draconian responses to the examples I listed above are types of “inappropriate” contestation that I champion. But the problem is that to the extent these demands for the censoring, withdrawal, and destruction of artworks are forms of criticism, they are simultaneously oppressive strategies focused solely on silencing artistic speech, i.e.- killing freedom of expression. These are criticisms aimed at the destruction rather than the production of content, knowledge and debate, as disturbing and uncomfortable as they may be.

Let’s take Sam Durant’s Walker sculpture as an example. Durant was trained at CalArts and is currently an instructor there—the same institution that pretty much invented criticality in artistic production. Durant must know that context and intent play a major role—if not the sole role—in determining an object’s meaning. Certainly CalArts’s loss of Michael Asher and Allan Sekula cannot mean that Durant jettisoned history, context, intent, and discourses regarding institutions and the public from the making and reception of an artwork. Had Durant and Walker Art Center curator, Olga Viso, considered context and intent, that alone would have sufficed as a defense to Durant’s alleged insensitivity and naiveté. By willfully ignoring the fact that Durant’s sculpture would not read the same in Europe as it would in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Viso and Durant perpetuate the modernist myth of the autonomous art object. Had the question of context and intent been addressed during curatorial planning, the Walker and Durant would have evaded self-censorship and the hot trend called, corporate social responsibility.

Yet the “inappropriate” should not be left solely to artistic production. Those who teach art and its disciplines, e.g.- curating, should also challenge and encourage their students to engage every written and visual work with rigorous criticism focused on presenting alternatives to and weaknesses in the object of criticism, not to level ad hominen attacks at other artists or demand an artwork’s withdrawal or destruction. Art schools and art departments should place more focus on establishing spaces where questions can be raised rather than suppressed. Spaces where students can think of culture outside of residencies, art fairs and institutional frameworks. An environment that nurtures a Socratic method of analysis, not a space that indoctrinates with the latest politically fashionable dogma.

We must remember that the present has precedent. The establishment of “propriety” in art can, and will, help so-called “conservative communities” establish censorship and destruction as a paradigm in artistic production and culture. If certain liberal sectors are offended by paintings, sculptures, syllabi, questions and comments, why should the Catholic church not have a right to demand the removal or destruction of an artwork or entire exhibition when offended by the next Piss Christ?

– Sergio Muñoz Sarmiento


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