Butt plugs and burning churches

J.J. Charlesworth on art censorship, from the December 2014 issue

By J.J. Charlesworth

Courtesy Hauser & Wirth Mujeres Públicas, Cajita de Fósforos, 2005. Courtesy Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid

President François Hollande is really into butt plugs. That’s right, you heard it here first – the president of the French Republic is totally up for the popular anal pleasurement devices. Sort of. OK, so maybe I’m paraphrasing a bit. But what he did say was, ‘France will always be on the side of artists, just as I am on the side of Paul McCarthy, whose work was sullied, no matter what one’s opinion of the piece may have been.’

Hollande was of course reacting to the street assault on the American artist by an irate, unknown passerby, who had taken strong exception to McCarthy’s inflatable sculpture Tree (2014), while the artist had been overseeing its installation on the Place Vendôme, ahead of Paris’s FIAC art fair in October. The bright green shape, a blunt cone on a cinched pedestal, could be seen as a schematised Christmas tree, but for most Parisians, irate or not, it resembled a huge green bum cork, and after a couple of days in situ, and subject to various incidents of attempted vandalism, FIAC and McCarthy gave up and took the inflatable down.

Obviously, by siding with McCarthy, Hollande was trying to show that he is a fearless defender of freedom of artistic expression and cultural tolerance. It was similarly the point that members of the French section of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) were trying to make when they held a demonstration in support of McCarthy, holding aloft photographs of the by-now-removed Tree.

AICA France’s protest against what one might call ‘censorship from below’ is merely the latest incident in which artworks face calls for them to be banned or removed, not by state authorities, but by various groups of upset or offended citizens. In ArtReview’s November issue, Daniel McClean reported on the campaign this summer by an Italian children’s rights group against the exhibition of a work by the Chapman Brothers included in a show at Rome’s MAXXI, which finally conceded and removed the work from display. In London in October, a group of activists succeeded in forcing the Barbican Centre to cancel its run of theatre-installation work Exhibit B (2014) by white South African director Brett Bailey, declaring that the piece was an affront to black people in its use of black actors to depict scenes of slavery. The same month, the curator of the Reina Sofía museum in Madrid faced a lawsuit from the Spanish Association of Catholic Lawyers for the removal from the group show Really Useful Knowledge of a work by Argentinean collective Mujeres Públicas’s Cajita de Fósforos (Matchbox, 2005), which, according to outraged campaigners, was an incitement to set churches on fire and an insult to those of faith. And at the beginning of November, organisers of the Paris Le Mois de la Photo caved in to a handful of letters of complaint, one from a ‘survivor of incest’, by removing photographs by Diane Ducruet of the artist cuddling and kissing her child.

Art has long been a flashpoint for controversy and censure, but this new culture of outrage is different; it’s not just a matter of traditional rightwing and religious moralists getting upset. Every sort of minority interest group – ethnic minority activists, antipaedophile campaigners, Christians – finds cause to get hotly offended, and to demand that offending artworks be banished from the public eye. In part, this mixed-up situation represents the point where the logic of identity politics converges with the growing culture of deference towards the figure of the victim of abuse – whether present or historical. So when it comes to the now-regular campaigns against works deemed in some way obscene, these are led not by old-school moralists but – in the paranoid and delusional culture of child-abuse panic – by campaign groups who claim to represent the interests of victims of abuse, and who claim the absolute right to judge an artwork, regardless of anybody else’s opinion. 

So, during the Exhibit B controversy, the campaigners rejected every assertion – even, to the point of absurdity, by the all-black cast itself – that the intention of the work wasn’t racist: if you’re a ‘survivor’ and offended, it’s your version of reality that counts, and no one else’s. Identity politics initially emerged out of the claims of particular oppressed groups – blacks, gays, women – but now every minority group has realised that since everyone else can demand protection from criticism, they too should get in on the act: as a pro-Christian petition against the Reina Sofía show argued huffily, ‘It would be reprehensible for a religious denomination to request money from the government to insult feminists.’

The number of pro-Catholic contemporary artists who have received public funding to make artworks critical of feminists is, I suspect, precisely zero

Of course, the number of pro-Catholic contemporary artists who have received public funding to make artworks critical of feminists is, I suspect, precisely zero. But that, ironically, takes us back to McCarthy’s butt plug, or rather Hollande’s solemn but rather hollow defence of freedom of expression; in reality, the president’s self-important championing of freedom only really extends to the freedom of artists to express the sort of mildly transgressive liberal values that the liberal political establishment is comfortable with – an establishment that by contrast is pretty intolerant of traditionalist or religious values: in a country where you can erect a giant butt plug on the Place Vendôme, you’ll nevertheless get arrested if you walk across it wearing a niqab.

That the cultural establishment is relaxed about the supposedly ‘transgressive’ gestures of artists such as McCarthy, Bailey or the Chapmans suggests that, in reality, their rather dismal and misanthropic view of people and society has become commonplace. McCarthy’s puerile conflation of patriarchal culture, consumerism and abjection is easily swallowed by a culture that prefers cynical disenchantment to idealism; the Chapmans’ frigid posthumanism sees people as thoughtless, instinct-driven insects; and Bailey’s rehearsal of past barbarism turns art into a kind of therapy, as if white people today should be made to feel somehow still responsible for the past suffering of black people. Ironically, the inheritors of once-radical-seeming, psychoanalytical critiques of normality that artists like McCarthy draw on are the new victim-protesters, who see psychological trauma hidden in every innocent image, and emotional violence constantly lurking below the surface of everyday life.

Artists don’t deserve to get punched in the street, and artworks don’t deserve to be pulled from public view, however upsetting they are to a few, however traumatised they declare themselves to be. To give in to such pressures is to give up on the possibility of debating the value of an artwork for the broadest audience, in cowed deference to the narrowest – at which point you might as well give up on art criticism, for fear of offending anyone. Yet freedom of expression also means the freedom to criticise it – to criticise the everyday orthodoxies that lie behind shitty artworks. To be on the side of artists, ‘no matter what one’s opinion’, makes art, and opinion, equally worthless. 

This article was first published in the December 2014 issue.