Art and Obscenity

Sunday, March 12, 2017
First Aired: 
Sunday, June 15, 2014

What Is It

What do Marcel Duchamp, Damien Hirst, and Andres Serrano have in common? They’ve all created modern works of art that have shocked and outraged the general public, causing many to question whether these works have any artistic value at all. But isn’t it the purpose of art to incite inquiry and question conventional moral wisdom? If so, then a strong public reaction would seem to prove the artistic merit of these works. So, is there a clear line to be drawn between genuine art and mere obscenity? Or has shock value simply replaced cultural value in the world of contemporary art? John and Ken curate their conversation with Stanford art historian Richard Meyer, author of What Was Contemporary Art? This program was recorded live at the Marsh Theatre in Berkeley.

Listening Notes

John opens the show quoting the Supreme Court definition of obscenity, which mainly denotes that the object at hand has no artistic value. Ken finds this interpretation odd, because if the definition was correct, then art could never be obscene. John says it is best not to get too hung up on the definitions themselves – an example of a work that has at some point been considered obscene is better. So Ken brings up Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain,’ a common urinal that, in the gallery setting, was referred to as vulgar and immoral and that elevated Duchamp to being credited with conceptual art. Ken says he understands why the work caused anger in 1917, but in comparing the piece to more recent works, it seems tame. John brings up Andres Serrano’s image of a crucifix submerged in urine – in time, this too will seem non-controversial, because what is considered obscene changes over time. Even Impressionism was once considered offensive, John points out. Ken expresses concern that with an overload of shock art, a line – the very line the Supreme Court was attempting to delineate in its definition of obscenity – is going to be crossed. So, John asks Ken, should the law dictate what artists can and cannot do? Shock art questions convention, and artists have a right to express their opinion in whatever form – after all, if a person is offended, all he has to do is look away.

Ken and John introduce guest Richard Meyer, professor of Art History at Stanford University and author of What Was Contemporary Art? John first asks Richard how he got interested in contemporary (and often controversial) art. Richard explains that he had a realization after seeing a retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work which was originally canceled in Washington D.C. and was later shown in Berkeley, where Richard was completing graduate school. At the time, Richard’s focus lay on the politics of art in the 19th and 20th centuries, but after seeing the retrospective he decided to use his training to examine questions about modern art, to grapple with recent issues being brought up regarding the limits of artistic expression. John then asks Richard what he thinks of the Supreme Court’s stark definition of obscenity (or any definition of obscenity for that matter). Richard explains that while there is a legal definition, one must also note that artists are not so much concerned with the logic of the law or with working parallel to it. He brings up the example of Mapplethorpe, who once said he wanted to make art that was also pornography, this being a case where the artist challenges boundaries, both philosophical and logical or fully law-abiding. Ken asks Richard about the seeming contradiction between obscenity and art, and Richard agrees that there is an important and thought-provoking tension between the two concepts. Richard also speaks about the idea of the avant-garde as being transgressive and innovative leading to what is perhaps a responsibility of the artist to challenge viewers, be it through what means it may.   

Ken poses the question of how to evaluate the artistic merit of a controversial piece. Richard makes a distinction between a piece being a work of art and the piece being a good work of art. He can agree that a photograph like Pissed Christ is art, but whether it is good is the real issue. Ken considers that ‘art’ is an honorific term that ascribes a certain standing to a piece and to its creator. Can an artist only get away with presenting an obscene piece if the piece is a good work of art? Richard brings up the saying “I know it when I see it,” which was originally brought up in the context of discussing obscenity, and asks whether we really do know the obscene when we see it, especially if the notion of the obscene is time-sensitive and fluctuates. Then, Richard briefly speaks about the power that those who claim obscenity in a work of art ascribe to the work in question to wound or offend the viewer. The fleeting nature of obscenity is further discussed when John brings up an amusing anecdote regarding the controversy of seeing Brigitte Bardot’s backside in a film when he was younger – now, finding controversy in showing skin would seem odd. Richard agrees, and he also brings up the notion that artists have a responsibility to liberate vision, though the danger lies in nearing a point where artists push boundaries just for publicity or shock value.

Ken and John then take questions from the audience. To a question regarding whether art should be educational and teach viewers something they do not already know, Richard concurs. Art, he says, should be revelatory. John then opines about levels of controversy and whether certain things, like, child abuse, should ever be presented in an artistic context, regardless of whether it is a raw cell phone video or a produced experience. Richard speaks about the importance of and power stemming from art inciting these questions – art leads people to decide that they are going to be the arbitrators, the legislators, of what obscenity means to them. Whether restriction is nowadays more shocking than being shown skin, for example, is also a topic that is touched upon, as is whether the definitions in legislation are meant to protect children only and the legitimacy of claims of injury to a whole group based on religion. Ken wonders what gives anybody the right to restrict what he sees – after all, those who walk into museums are there on their own accord. Richard concludes by suggesting the problematic notion of obscenity credentialing an artist.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 6:40): Caitlin Esch talks to Bruce Gunther, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Portland Art Museum, about the most controversial works he has displayed in the museum. The pieces discussed, both which were once highly controversial, are a sculpture of a crucified frog by Martin Kippenberger and “The Bear Chair” by Edward and Nancy Kienholz.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 46:28): Ian Shoales discusses a painting he saw at a Mark Rothko retrospective show, a very large canvas painted entirely with two shades of black, and the effect it had on viewers, who walked away quickly. Ian speeds through modern alternatives to this painting.