Obscenity is a moral concept in the verbal arsenal of the establishment, which abuses the term by applying it, not to expressions of its own morality but to those of another. —Herbert Marcuse
Yes, it has happened again. Once more, some prurient patrol of public prejudice has assumed the mantel of moral responsibility for the planet and attempted to stamp out the obscenity that is art. Apparently my articles are not getting in front of enough eyes because I know damn good and well we wrote about this at least three times last year. Yet, for those who weren’t paying attention, here we go again.
This time, the offense takes place in Englewood, New Jersey where there is apparently a city ordinance prohibiting public display of nude images in certain spaces. Specifically, according to the Associated Press, “nude images have to be kept in interior rooms not visible from public areas.” This 1992 ordinance created a problem for Laura Borghi of Borghi Fine Art Gallery when it came time to hang a work by painter Tom Dash this past January. Due to the size of the canvas, Ms. Borghi claims that she had limited options as to where to display the piece. So, she chose the front window of her gallery. [We’ll just assume that there is ultra-violet protection on the glass to prevent the sun’s rays from destroying the pigment in the paint. Otherwise, she would be a very bad gallery owner.]
Dash’s artwork, by the way, is, “an ink jet collage of photos of two women painted over in acrylic paint.” One of the women happens to be showing her bare buttock.
Englewood city code enforcement officer Walter Deptuch, who apparently takes his job very seriously, issued Borghi a violation requesting that the artwork be removed. I’m guessing that “request” failed to use the magic word “please,” as Borghi refused to move the painting. She was then threatened with “fines of $1,250 per day and the threat of up to 90 days in jail.” Rather severe consequences for showing someone’s bare bum.
Ms. Borghi has, of course, filed suit as she should, and, of course, that immediately causes any elected official, or city employee, to clam up, so there has been no statement from the city attempting to justify what would seem to be a rather over-the-top reaction to something that likely offends fewer than five percent of the town’s populace. I’m just guessing at that statistic, but given the number of bare butts one sees on prime time television these days I hardly see how Dash’s artwork can be considered obscene on those grounds.
As we’ve stated before, though, obscenity and art rather go hand and hand. Getting the attention of image-weary humans requires an increasing shock value and whether the art form is visual or verbal or musical, artists across all genres find themselves crossing that might, to some, be considered a line of good taste in order to express themselves in ways that communicate stronger emotions. A little obscenity here and there is necessary for some art to stand out and, quite honestly, whose definition of obscenity are we using in the first place?
As I was reading about this situation yesterday, another email dropped into my inbox (yes, I still use email) showing off a new print ad for an exhibition at Sweden’s Sven-Harrys art museum called Swedish Art: Now! I’m sure they argued over that title for hours. The exhibition includes the Tomas Hämén fossilised dinosaur faeces sculpture, Asstral Traveler. The print ad includes a picture of that piece of sculpture with lead copy that states: “You’d better sit down for this.” Body copy later encourages, “Admire it above, then take in the real thing…” At that point, my inner 15-year-old can no longer hide and burst out giggling. Here’s the ad:
Yes, you are seeing that correctly. Hämén carved a butt plug from fossilized dinosaur shit and the museum thinks you might want to sit and take it in. I sincerely apologize for the adolescent giggles continuing on this side of the Internet. I don’t’ know whether the folks who created the ad, M&C Saatchi, Stockholm, intended the slightly erotic inferences, but I certainly hope they did. Certainly, no one in Sweden seems to be claiming there to be any obscenity here, but I can’t help but wonder how well the same ad would play in Englewood. If Ms. Burghi cannot display the bare butt, can she display a fossilized butt plug?
The degree to which our world is off its moral rocker is evident in the fact that I am offended that someone else took offense at something I don’t see as offensive. Screams of obscenity get thrown around all over the place and one might reasonably argue that creating such a dustup over a relatively insignificant display of a woman’s bare bum is a pretty good way to generate some free marketing. Although, with attorney’s fees and court filing costs, I’m not sure “free” is exactly the appropriate term.
Speaking of attorney’s, the one representing Ms. Borghi in all this, Brian Bernstein, is confident they will win because both the U.S. and New Jersey constitutions prohibit censoring art in any way. There’s no special obscenity exception clause. He states:
“There’s nothing new about government efforts to suppress artistic expression, especially if it might be viewed by some as controversial. Art that challenges convention makes an attractive target for the government.”
With most municipal budgets being as tight as they are and city resources in most places being so slim, I’m rather surprised that the city of Englewood would want to suffer the expense of such a lawsuit in the first place. Don’t be surprised when they settle out of court and the whole matter gets dropped.
I’ve seen the AP wire story in no fewer than seven publications over the past 24 hours. That should be sufficient attention that Ms. Borghi isn’t likely to have much trouble actually selling the artwork, which, I assume, was her goal in the first place. Doubtless, the price may have increased a little bit. I’m fairly certain Tom Dash doesn’t mind a little extra publicity coming his direction, either.
Obscenity is a tag that often carries some value in the art world. If a work is strong enough to offend the prudish, the artist must be saying something important, no? And if that message is so elevated that the artistically naïve and ignorant don’t “get it,” then the artwork must be especially valuable. Such is art world logic.
Personally, I don’t find artwork obscene and would be just fine if this whole argument would go away. What’s obscene is the way a handful of galleries and curators control the art market, driving up prices for a handful of artists, while preventing other artists from being shown in major galleries at all. That’s where the real obscenity in art lies.
Oh, but I’m not supposed to talk about that. Damn, I’m likely to get into trouble now.