Museum shouldn't apologize for its provocative artwork

March 29, 2002|By Emma Sartwell

UNTITLED, by Christopher Wool, is a 8-by-5-foot piece of white aluminum with the word "terrorist" on it in black stenciled letters. It was acquired by the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1990.

After Sept. 11, visitors to the BMA began complaining about Untitled and breaking down in tears after seeing it. So, on Sept. 15, the BMA chose to remove the painting, claiming it was "disturbing."

Soon after, Untitled was put back in place with a plaque giving the BMA's interpretation of the painting. It reads, in part: "Our understanding of art depends on its context and can change with time. After the tragic events of September 11th, 2001, the word terrorist, and the images it calls to mind, is no longer vague. They are horribly concrete, and evoke anxiety, fear, discomfort, anger and grief."

In taking down Mr. Wool's painting, the BMA was being contradictory, cowardly and just completely missing the point. Perhaps it realizes that. But putting it back with an apology is only slightly less cowardly. If it is worth being shown, why must we be told how to interpret it?

Anne Mannix, the BMA's spokeswoman, puts it this way: "People can experience the work on their own, or the museum can demystify it."

I choose the former, but the museum is no longer giving me a choice. Maybe it should go ahead and demystify their entire collection ("Images of fruit may evoke feelings of hunger.")

I don't think Untitled glorifies or supports terrorism. But even if it did, it should not be taken down for that reason. It would be a better painting if it did support terrorism. It would still be a piece of art, not an act of violence.

In any case, terrorists were no less immoral before Sept. 11. If the BMA didn't realize that terrorists were "disturbing" until the attacks on New York and the Pentagon occurred and people started complaining about Untitled, then its officials really are Americans - completely unaware of world problems until they arrive on our doorstep.

If it was good art on Sept. 10, then it was good art on Sept. 12.

How could merely painting the word "terrorist" be glorifying terrorism? Showing the planes crashing into the twin towers countless times on television seems to glorify this act and show the world (not to mention the terrorists themselves) that they really do have power. Should those tapes be censored because people break down in tears after seeing them? Should newspapers be censored? They certainly contain the word terrorist far more times than this painting.

Untitled does have quite an impact, and not only because it says "terrorist" on it. Mr. Wool's paintings definitely stand out among the Manets and Matisses. His work isn't pretty, and that is intentional. Maybe the artist was actually trying to be provocative, even offensive. Things that are offensive always get more notice and have a much greater impact than things that aren't. Its offensiveness increases its quality.

It's clear to me that word "terrorist" is merely supposed to be thought-provoking, and after Sept. 11 it provokes even more thought and emotion. Most art (movies, books, music, etc.) that actually makes the viewer break down in tears is considered great. That reaction is exactly what makes it a good painting, not a bad one.

No mention of Mr. Wool or the "terrorist painting" appears on the BMA's Web site.

Emma Sartwell is an eighth-grader at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Day School.

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