Retrospective: Artists Discuss What Constitutes Obscenity

And other excerpts from our coverage 100, 75, 50, and 25 years ago

1OO Years Ago

October 31, 1914

October 31, 1914

“An Art Protest”

London art lovers have drawn up a protest against the acts of vandalism committed in Belgium by the German soldiers, a copy of which has been sent to the American ambassador with a request that it may be brought to the notice of the President of the United States. This document, which has been signed by the most eminent names among our collectors, critics and experts and by the Directors and Principals of practically all our national museums and galleries points out that “the splendid monuments of the Middle Ages which have met with annihilation, are the inheritance of the whole world and that it is the duty of all civilized communities to preserve them for the benefit and instruction of posterity.”

75 Years Ago

October 7, 1939

October 7, 1939

“The Editors Review: Art and the War

Can art survive? Can its fundamentals—free creative activity and untrammeled aesthetic experience—endure the terrible, all-affecting struggle which may only euphemistically be called a “European” war? If to ask that now seems premature or perhaps disproportionate to greater issues, it must forthwith be emphasized that such are the very imponderables at stake. The war just begun is but a physical extension of the war against the spirit and intellect which has been brutally waged for the last years, even decades, by the same aggressors upon whose heads is the carnage of today’s battlefields and bombardments. With the same contempt for a civilized ethic and the right of the individual now manifested in Hitler’s deliberate provocation of the slaughter and in Stalin’s cold-blooded coöperation in its extension, the Nazi and Communist states have, from the first moments of their respective being, savagely attacked and suppressed the artistic and, in fact, the entire cultural basis of Western civilization. Of these crimes committed against art in the name of the perverse, lying ideologies of National Socialism and National Communism we know to expect no quarter in the, we pray remote, event of their victory. In a world ruled by Hitler and Stalin, the only art that could survive would be the ordained posters and effigies propagandizing their dictatorship of the rabble, and a handful of other objects too impotent and innocuous to offend those rulers, triumphant over all other creative efforts of the past and present which would probably be consigned to the pyres for which the burning libraries of Germany have already set the example.

5O Years Ago

October  1964

October 1964

“Should the Artist Become a Man of the World?”
by Allan Kaprow

Obviously, power in art is not like that in a nation or in big business. A picture never changed the price of eggs. But a picture can change men’s dreams; and pictures may in time clarify men’s values. The power of the artist is precisely the influence he wields over the fantasies of his public. Its measure lies not only in the magnitude of this influence, but in its quality as well. Picasso competes with Walt Disney who in turn competes with “Mary Worth.” As it is involved in quality, art is a moral act. The artist usually sets out only to be good at his work, but once he recognizes the nature of his acts, his obligation is to serve that nature well, and perhaps in ways which can be confused with practices of hustlers and fakes. When the New is hard to separate from the pseudo-New, motives and results are obscure; but in the absence of standards beyond “Each to His Own,” the best must contend on the same field with the worst. The effectiveness of an artists’ vision becomes largely a matter of his insights balanced by his responsibility to them as Value. Practically, this means defending them against other values that may be more immediately compelling; it also means attending to their future. An artist’s work, as Rothko and Still have warned, may be misused, perverted, and watered down when it is taken up by the community he has asked to buy it. No artist can assure his success any more than he can control the public’s reception of his vision.

25 Years Ago

October  1989

October 1989

“What is Pornography?”

When Christina Orr-Cahall, the director of Washington, D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art, canceled its retrospective of the late Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs last June, she expressed the hope that her decision would stimulate serious reflection about what is art and what is not.

Senator Jesse Helms’s subsequent proposal to bar federal support for the “obscene or indecent” art reflected thus on obscenity and the people who create it: ‘the work of weird, crude minds” and “ugly, nasty things on the men’s room wall.”

Mapplethorpe, in an ARTnews interview published last Decemeber, was more philosophical. “I’m not afraid of words,” he said. “ ‘Pornography’ is fine with me. If it’s good it transcends what it is.”

We asked artists, museum directors, writers, and politicians, among others, three fundamental questions: What constitutes pornography? When is it art and when is it obscenity? Where do you draw the line?

John Baldessari, Artist:
1. What constitutes pornography?
Depiction of around-the-clock extremely athletic sex in countless positions employing all the body orifices and functions. The intended effect is to be “dirty,” boggle the mind, and provide sexual arousal! It should also promote guilt, embarrassment, eye popping, tongue clucking, raised eyebrows, and head wagging. No one should see you experiencing it and you should feel naive and out of it. Inwardly a voice should say, “I knew it. I knew it. I knew people did things like this!” …

2. When is it art?
Not often and only when it goes beyond pornography and I wish I had thought of it.

3. When is it obscene?
When it offends me.

4. Where do you draw the line?
At boredom, and if it’s not boring then it’s probably Art.

A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 128.

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