Contemporary artists have made work depicting graphic sexual acts, damaging property, injuring their own bodies, or paying others to alter theirs. But when does art cross the line from avant-garde to unacceptable?.
When the radical art collective Ztohoven slyly inserted a digital image of a mushroom cloud into an otherwise ordinary morning weather report on Czech Television’s CT2 channel last summer, the response was nothing like that provoked by Orson Welles’s 1938 radio play The War of the Worlds, which was based on H. G. Wells’s novel about an alien invasion and caused near pandemonium. Ztohoven’s video prank did not result in panic, nor did it become an instant classic (although it did make its way onto YouTube). In fact, last December, the National Gallery in Prague even gave Ztohoven an $18,000 prize for the piece, titled Media Reality. Nevertheless, in March, Ztohoven was brought to trial, accused by the government-run Czech TV of “scaremongering and propagating false information.” The group was found not guilty.Whether Ztohoven’s meteorologic manipulation is deemed an artwork or an irresponsible hoax, it raises an important question: when does shock outweigh artistic value in work that is designed to be provocative? And in a global culture jaded by graphic movies, rap songs, and deliberately repulsive reality TV (think Fear Factor—famous for its “gross stunts” where sexy contestants are covered in maggots or forced to dive into sewage), is such a question even relevant?Since the early 1970s, when Chris Burden had himself publicly shot in the arm and Vito Acconci masturbated under a gallery floor as his audience walked above him, performance, installation, and video art have increasingly pushed the envelope into new, often transgressive territory. And, not surprisingly, the human body has often been the medium of choice—whether it’s a naked Karen Finley coating herself with chocolate, Andrea Fraser taping herself having sex with a collector who paid $20,000 for the privilege, or Santiago Sierra tattooing prostitutes.But when are the artists themselves guilty of the exploitation their art is meant to expose? And, taking into account not only First Amendment rights but an artist’s traditional role of challenging the status quo, is there a point beyond which art can go too far? Are there guidelines that should be observed or enforced, or are ethics, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder?“Something’s being a work of art doesn’t excuse you from moral considerations,” says critic Arthur Danto. “The guy who dumps ink into one of Damien Hirst’s lambs and turns it black—that’s property damage even if it’s a performance. You can murder someone and call it a work of art, but you are still a murderer. Morality trumps esthetics. That’s my view.”Observes Tom Eccles, former director of the Public Art Fund and current executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, “We know what the ethical boundaries are, but some figures in the art world like to put blinkers on and use the notion of art to trump that. For me, Andres Serrano’s use of cadavers [in photographs] is an example of something I think is immoral. He is using the body parts of dead people without their permission.”As for Eccles’s own curatorial responsibility, he says, “It’s not about what the public should or shouldn’t be exposed to; it’s what you should or shouldn’t be complicit in.” Referring to the Sierra tattoos, he adds, “Humiliating people permanently within an artwork in public is for me the antithesis of what we hope an artwork will do.”Collector Mera Rubell and her husband, Don, consider such issues daily. For a couple of years, visitors to the Rubell Family Collection, a private museum in Miami, were greeted by an unusual spin on family values: Paul McCarthy’s Cultural Gothic(1992–93), an animatronic group sculpture depicting a boy seemingly being encouraged by his father to sodomize a goat.Says Rubell, “It is all about how much you trust the intention of the artist. If it’s just about sensationalism and opportunism, that doesn’t interest me.” She recalls being horrified in the 1980s by some knitted swastika pieces by German artist Rosemarie Trockel—until Trockel explained the work. “I said, ‘What the hell is this?’ But she said she had made the pieces because she wanted to provoke conversation about that period of history.”The Whitney Museum’s director, Adam Weinberg, explains, “Our role has been, historically, to follow the lead of artists, and that can mean territory that is not so comfortable, even for curators and directors of institutions. But if you choose to support an artist’s work, unless it will physically endanger the health of someone coming into the building, once we commit to put something on view, then we go where it has to go.”Still, Alanna Heiss, director of P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, points out that a publicly funded museum has a “moral contract.” She says, “We are a public institution. Do we have any duties to the public? Yes, we do. There is no legal obligation, but we feel that it is our duty to inform people about visual information that may be explicit or challenging. At P.S.1 we try to place the work where there is wall text prior to entering the room, so that people have an opportunity to make their own choice.”In P.S.1’s recent show “WACK!” which covered a wide swath of feminist art, a sign outside a room filled with photographs of variously splayed vaginas warned, “Please note this exhibition contains graphic content.” Similar signs were used during the museum’s 2006 “Into Me/Out of Me” exhibition, which focused on the “imagined, descriptive and performative act of passing into, through and out of the human body,” and featured the works of such artists as Robert Mapplethorpe, Peter Hujar, Cindy Sherman, and Abramovic. Some of the most extreme work was sequestered in a basement vault, accompanied by a label forbidding children under the age of 17 from entering without an adult.Heiss doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge her own visceral reactions. In preparing the 2002 show “Mexico City: An Exhibition About the Exchange Rates of Bodies and Values,” she suggested that the curator, Klaus Biesenbach, not exhibit a work that contained human liposuction material. “Everyone was making a work with material extruded from human bodies,” she says. Heiss adds that she did show Teresa Margolles’s Vaporization(2002), which filled a gallery with mist derived from water used to wash corpses. “So I am not that squeamish, but sometimes I just say, ‘Please don’t show this work.’ I find it too upsetting on a personal level.” The exhibition also included art by Santiago Sierra. “I find him very troubling,” admits Heiss. “I was uncomfortable with the tattoo piece, but as a director I in no way restricted its viewing. Two of my curators have been very enthusiastic about his work.”One of them is Biesenbach, chief curator at P.S.1 and chief curator of media at the Museum of Modern Art, who calls this genre exploitative reality. He explains, “In general, I have made the decision not to be the enabler of new pieces, but to show pieces that already exist.”Sierra has paid prostitutes, young Cubans, and young Mexicans to allow him to tattoo their backs, an act he has repeated several times since 1999. Five years ago the artist told Marc Spiegler in ARTnews, “The tattoo is not the problem. The problem is the existence of social conditions that allow me to make this work,” thereby neatly excusing himself from exploiting a deplorable situation in order to make a statement.Sierra has made a career of raising a ruckus. In 2005 he sprayed ten Iraqi immigrant workers with toxic foam (they were wearing protective gear), and in 2006 he turned a German synagogue into a gas chamber by parking six cars outside it and attaching their exhaust pipes to the building. Although Sierra said the work was a protest against the “banalization of the Holocaust,” local Jewish leaders were outraged, calling it “an abuse of artistic freedom,” and it was ultimately shut down. Most recently, London’s Lisson Gallery showed Sierra’s sculptures of human feces gathered up in New Delhi and Jaipur by the poor.Jeffrey Deitch, whose gallery often shows innovative performance art, initially welcomed the Spanish artist in 2002. “Santiago Sierra has the ethic widely held in the art world by people like me, who came up through the late 1960s or early ‘70s,” he says. “That’s the moral code—the artist is free to do whatever he wants without any interference.”That notion was put to the test in a piece by Sierra that called for workers to hold up beams for an entire day, like human cantilevers. Participants were hard to find (“You can’t just go out on the street and ask people, ‘Hey, want a job?’” says Deitch. “It doesn’t work that way here.”), and so Deitch turned to employment agencies.“We were finally able to get the 18 required people to come and do this,” says Deitch. “Everyone was there for the opening, and they started in with them holding these beams against the wall, and then suddenly a number of the guys dropped the beams and there was this conference in the middle of the room, and this older, distinguished African American man is leading the discussion about ‘Why are we being paid to do this demeaning thing?’ They thought it was beneath their dignity to be there as props in an artwork, and they walked off the job.”Interestingly, it is sometimes the artists themselves who rethink their more extreme work. Abramovic reenacted famous performances in “Seven Easy Pieces,” at the Guggenheim Museum during the biennial series Performa 2005. They included Acconci’s masturbation piece, Seedbed (1972), and one of her own works, Lips of Thomas(1975), in which she carves a star into her stomach with a razor blade, lies on a crucifix of ice, and then whips herself—as much of an endurance test for the audience as for the artist. But since the 1990s her primary focus has shifted away from testing the body.Still, after the Guggenheim performances, Abramovic was inundated with requests from art students who wanted to reenact her work. That meant that even though she herself was no longer performing physically grueling pieces, they might still be performed by others. “You don’t want to become like a wrong example and icon, which people like to follow or repeat for the wrong reasons,” she says. “I will give permission for only the pieces that I think don’t involve any danger—those kind of pieces I only can be responsible for doing them myself.”According to Abramovic, the artist isn’t the only one who bears responsibility. What about the audience? “I always think the public can go much farther than the artist himself can go,” she explains, “because we know our limits and there’s some kind of ethics there. But the public actually can kill you if you give them entire control of the situation.” Abramovic has experienced this firsthand during performances, such as Rhythm O(1974), in which she gave the audience implements that could cause harm, including a pistol, and barely escaped serious injury. “But my point of view is, whatever you do to yourself, you should definitely not do to others. I am totally against in any way hurting or putting in danger the other person in the situation.”As to why one would employ bodily harm at all, Abramovic answers, “In order to transcend the body. The reason for doing these art actions was not just to hurt myself and see how far it could go,” she insists. “It’s all about elevating the spirit and eliminating fear. It aims very high, and the body is just a tool, and once the body is just a tool, you can go very far. A razor can be like a pencil. Sometimes you need to disturb in order to make the space for somebody to think.”Other performance artists take an even harder line on their own “transgressive” pieces. These days, Acconci says he regrets much of his earlier work. “When I was doing it, it was part of a very specific time, the end of the ‘60s and the beginning of the ‘70s. I never thought of a word like ‘transgression,’” he says. “This was a time in which the kind of work I was doing was part of the common language, like the Beatles song ‘Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?’ It was a way to make my relations to other people more visible, to embody them. It wasn’t supposed to be a performance. For me, if the piece made any sense, it meant I had to become part of the floor; I was trying to perform the space itself. It bothered me that I started becoming a personality cult. Seedbedwas one of the last performances I did.”For Acconci, the “point beyond which art shouldn’t be pushed is when you start to make a fool of the viewer, take advantage of a viewer’s gullibility. That’s immoral.” He adds, “I don’t like art where the artist becomes all-powerful and either people are used as material or the audience is being turned into a kind of sucker.”Yale University student Aliza Shvarts’s widely reported senior art project this spring managed to do both: the artist used herself as material, while taking advantage of audience gullibility. First she claimed to have repeatedly inseminated herself and induced multiple abortions with herbal remedies; then she denied the entire account, before repeating her original claim and saying that the denials were also part of the performance. Yale’s faculty was not amused. Peter Salovey, the dean of Yale College, and Robert Storr, dean of the School of Art, issued a statement finding “serious errors of judgment” by Shvarts’s adviser and art instructor.There are, of course, artists who manage to inspire debate without resorting to such extremes. John Currin, known for his meticulous painting technique, has used imagery that could be considered both sexist and pornographic—from women with Dolly Parton–esque figures to people engaged in polymorphous sexual activities. Says Currin, “I don’t intend to be provocative. That’s not really something that I consider part of the meaning of my work. I’m still working with pornographic images, and it actually upsets me that it might provoke.”Still, some works offend almost everyone. Vanessa Beecroft, known for naked exhibitionism—the use of nude women in many installations—caused an uproar when she splattered naked African immigrants with red paint during last year’s Venice Biennale to protest the situation in Darfur. And more recently, Beecroft posed for Ellemagazine as the Virgin Mary, suckling twin Sudanese babies—an image that outraged many.In March the San Francisco Art Institute was forced to cancel a show by Adel Abdessemed, “Don’t Trust Me,” which included video clips of six animals being killed with a sledgehammer. It was unclear whether the artist himself had killed the horse, deer, pig, goat, sheep, and ox. As it turned out, Abdessemed had not, but had arranged the deaths of animals slated for the slaughterhouse in Mexico so that they could be videotaped. But the issue wasn’t just this ambiguity; it was the graphic depiction of real, raw death in an artwork that caused a furor, including an avalanche of protests on blogs. Diana Thater was one of several artists who claimed to be objecting to the killing of animals, not to the art itself. However, she was quoted in the Los Angeles Timesblog Opinion L.A. calling the show a “sick exhibit” that “represents the very worst impulses of the human imagination,” fails to “raise people’s consciousness,” and “will encourage them to accept animal abuse.”This spring, the ante was upped significantly when German artist Gregor Schneider announced plans for a performance piece that centers on a human death. Schneider wants to enlist a moribund person to die in a gallery, or, short of that, display a very recent corpse, in an effort “to show the beauty of death.” Beauty may be nothing but the “beginning of Terror, we’re still just able to bear,” as Rainer Maria Rilke put it. But the deliberate staging of death—the ultimate taboo—still remains well beyond the scope of what is considered acceptable as art.Phoebe Hoban is a New York–based journalist who covers culture for a variety of publications. She is the author of Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (Penguin, 1999).