Dialogue January-February 2000

"Art Until Now" No More


by Jeanette Wenig Drake

Closing the millennium with a bang, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) twice in six months censored artwork it deemed offensive. In November, DIAís new diector, Graham Beal, closed "Art Until Now," artist Jef Bourgeauís 12-part show reflecting art of the century. Several months earlier, the museum removed Kara Walkerís A Means to an End: A Shadow Drama in Five Acts (1995) from "Where the Girls Are" when African-American artists and collectors protested its presence.

A Means to an End, the five-panel silhouette of an antebellum plantation scene, has been part of the DIAís permanent collection since 1996, but just weeks before the opening of the exhibition, several board members and the Friends of African and African American Art complained that Walkerís piece was offensive. According to Annmarie Erickson, DIA director of communication and marketing, the primary contention was that there is Ďno clear art-historical perspective" about the controversial work. While this argument leaves itself wide open for interpretation, it is known that Walkerís work has been under attack before by those offended by her images of sex, bestiality, and sadism. The work in question will, however, be exhibited sometime in the future, Erickson said.

Not so for the work of Bourgeau. His first of 12 installations was shut down with just two days left in the show. At press time, both the museum and the artist were skeptical that the show would reopen.

"Nobody had complained," claims Bourgeau, who had spent two years without compensation preparing for the exhibit, which was actually commissioned by the DIA.

A brouhaha transpired on day three of the show when Beal saw the works for the first time and swiftly closed it the following day.

"Anytime work has been censored, there is a sensation created from outside the exhibit," says Bourgeau, recalling Andres Serranoís Piss Christ and Robert Mapplethorpeís retrospective a decade ago. "People grasp for tags such as Ďcensorshipí or Ďracismí or Ďanti-Christianí but those issues below these surface labels are overlooked," he says. "In this case, itís a dangerous precedent because the art community itself has shut down the exhibit. There were no outside pressures. No outside complaint. Thatís a major issue, but itís being washed aside."

With a mission to trace the major themes in 20th-century art, Bourgeauís work, among other things, alluded to the recent British "Sensations" show that was hotly criticized by New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who threatened to cut off city funding for the Brooklyn Museum of Art. While the "Sensations" show featured Chris Ofiliís portrait of the Virgin Mary, which was adorned with elephant dung and thereby perceived as sacrilege to some Christians. Bourgeau says he presented a "safe" version/reference in his Bathtub Jesus with an antique tub and 18" doll wearing a condom. The work was innocuous, says Bourgeau, it wasnít even a condom; but a finger protector for counting money. He said the work itself didnít become shocking until people read the title.

Other parts of Bourgeauís exhibit the museum deemed "unacceptable" were a vial of urine that referenced Serranoís photograph as well as a piece containing a racial epithet in the title. The work, Nigger Toe, featured a Brazil nut suspended in a glass vitrine. "Letís talk about it (racism) and get through it," says the artist who was exploring the seeds of prejudice by putting it into a public space to encourage just such a dialogue.

The DIAís director was not available for comment, but Erickson said the museum closed the show not in response to public outcry, but because it "wasnít willing to support the work," which the museum felt was "offensive to the Christian community." She said the issue of the Brooklyn show never came up. However, newspaper reports indicate that Beal did raise it in conversation with Bourgeau and did reject the "Sensations" show on three occasions as director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Pulling the plug on this recent exhibition in the eleventh hour seems ironic given the prior availability of the work, which had previously been on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art (operated by Bourgeau) twenty minutes North of Detroit.

What is most disturbing to Bourgeau is the way people who have never seen the exhibition are taking sides. He also says itís remiss for the museum to refuse whole categories of art, such as the Young Brits, into its galleries.

"Itís strange at this time and with all thatís going on with this art in the press, the art of the 90s is being refused exposure in Detroit," Bourgeau says. "Much of the public still has a problem with Cubism. Without cultural exposure, they are left happy with pretty pictures."

He admits that todayís art is charged. "Itís always been that way. Itís intertwined and inseparable from the culture and so itís going to elicit strong responses. It is Pop Art with content Ė art that provokes questions, makes us think and helps us understand the times weíre living in."

Also inseparable from art is funding. While there were no Jesse Helms or Dick Armeys threatening to slash NEA funding, the DIA is facing a $300 million fund-raising campaign.