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.

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