Artist Joseph Kosuth goes on the offensive to defend art called objectionable

July 19, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

"It is a grave mistake to permit these pictures to hang either here or elsewhere. Why the saloons could not hang these pictures! There is a law prohibiting it. The idea that some people can gaze at this sort of thing without its hurting them is all bosh. The exhibition ought to be suppressed."

The speaker is not Jesse Helms, and the works in question are not homoerotica by Robert Mapplethorpe or any other recently controversial art. The speaker was Arthur Burrage Farwell, president of the Chicago Law and Order League, objecting to the now legendary 1913 Armory show of modern art when it visited Chicago.

Another visitor, a clergyman, reported that he felt it necessary, upon encountering the works of Matisse, the cubists and the futurists, "to turn back his flock of Sunday school children at the head of the stairs . . . [when] he saw from the door that the rooms were filled with the degeneracies of Paris." Still another visitor was shocked to find that one of the women in a Matisse painting had four toes!

Today of course, as artist Joseph Kosuth says, that Matisse painting or any of the other pictures at the Armory show "would be happily exhibited in the dining room of any Republican we know of." And the same people who would like to dictate what the National Endowment for the Arts can and cannot fund, sit themselves every day on furniture designed by Marcel Breuer and other masters of the Bauhaus, the great German design school which the Nazis found so threatening that they forced it to close.

Cubist paintings and Bauhaus furniture are among the many works, from all over the world and from ancient times to the present, cited in Mr. Kosuth's "The Play of the Unmentionable," the just-published book that grew out of the New York artist's celebrated 1990 installation at the Brooklyn Museum.

The idea for the installation came about when Mr. Kosuth, at 47 a leading American conceptualist artist, was invited by the Brooklyn Museum to do a show for its lobby. When he found that the project would be partly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, which has sustained repeated attacks in recent years for some of the art it has funded, Mr. Kosuth decided that his installation should address the issue of the pressures that art faces.

Disruptive art

The artist wanted to make the point that "What we [consider] now as masterpieces [came about] very often because they were problematic in their own time. Art is about making meaning, and the only way really you can make meaning is to do a work which is somehow disruptive of the status quo. In a certain sense the responsibility of the artist is in being disruptive to established points of view."

Drawing exclusively from the museum's collections, Mr. Kosuth selected objects which were once found objectionable but are not now, along with works that were acceptable at one time or place but that might not be so now.

Thus, the book, like the exhibit, contains 18th and 19th century Japanese prints showing explicit sexual acts; sculptures by Rodin on the subject of lesbian love; a 7th century B.C. Egyptian sculpture showing a pharaoh masturbating; a late 15th century religious painting that was defaced by iconoclasts during the 16th century Reformation; and Thomas Hovenden's 19th century painting of a black boy with a watermelon, titled, "Ain't That Ripe?"

The book begins with an introduction by Charlotta Kotik, curator of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum, who proposed the Kosuth project, and a section of photographs of the museum installation. It continues with an interview with the artist, and an essay by art historian David Freedberg discussing Kosuth's art as well as the subject of censorship. The rest of the book is devoted to photographs of works included in the installation together with quotes on subjects related to censorship from sources as wide-ranging as Hitler, Oscar Wilde, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and art historians.

Support for the NEA

Mr. Kosuth says that he envisioned the project as a gesture of support for the NEA and the spirit in which it has supported the arts for the past quarter of a century. "I wanted to come to the aid of the NEA, to what the NEA has meant and has stood for, which to me has been providing the possibility of 'pure research,' so that artists are able to pursue their work without looking over their shoulder about what will sell that year."

The NEA, he thinks, has been extremely important in freeing art from the dictates of the marketplace. "The possibility of the free flow of ideas needs a climate that nurtures art and respects the individual's ability to follow [his] own work. We fund scientists to do pure research. Politicians don't go into the laboratory and tell them what to do."

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