As the dust begins to settle from the recent skirmish at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the principals are probably wondering what hit them. CNN, CBC, CBS’ Bryant Gumbel and the New York Times – not to mention numerous local hounds – were on the trail of newly appointed DIA Director Graham Beal’s decision to "postpone" a show by Pontiac conceptual artist Jef Bourgeau. According to Beal, "I was dismayed by several of the pieces that either contained elements or were accompanied by labels that seemed to me to be certain of causing real offense to important segments of our community."
Bourgeau was to have installed a series of weeklong commentaries on the state of contemporary art, collectively titled Art Until Now, of which this segment was to be the first. Certainly the versions of what actually went down are as different as can be.
Bourgeau claims censorship, even abridgment of his First Amendment rights by Beal, in a last-minute reaction to an exhibition that had been in the works "for at least two years." Curator of 20th century art MaryAnn Wilkinson confirms that she discussed with Bourgeau, over roughly that time period, the parameters of a show focusing on "art at the end of the century." But there agreement ends.
The artist says that Wilkinson knew all along what he planned for the exhibit which opened without incident Wednesday, Nov. 17. Wilkinson says that the two works that caused Beal to balk were late additions by Bourgeau that she hadn’t seen earlier; she maintains that the artist was still installing the exhibition when Beal visited it that Thursday.
The two pieces causing all the commotion are "Bathtub Jesus" and "Nigger Toe." The first is a representation of an infant with a rubber accountant’s finger protruding from its crotch. The second consists of a Brazil nut held by two clamps and displayed under a magnifying glass. Both sculpture-collages refer to works by internationally prominent artists. Bourgeau says the impetus for "Bathtub Jesus" comes from Chris Ofili’s notorious piece in the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s Sensation exhibition in which a Madonna is portrayed with a breast made of elephant dung. And "Nigger Toe," he says, refers to the late African-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s practice of referring to himself with the "N" word.
But what’s really at issue here?
As long as "cutting-edge" art movements were concerned with cubism, abstraction, minimalism and such, your everyday person didn’t give much of a damn. The audience was primarily critics, museums, other artists, those who could afford to purchase such works and those educated to appreciate them. But in the post-Andy Warhol era, artists saw the possibility of addressing "everybody." And the surrealist idea of combining disparate materials or icons into a single "shocking" work became a tempting strategy, especially when scandal attracted so much notoriety.
Bourgeau’s exhibition – along with the way it has been handled by the DIA – raises the problem of the accessibility of the language of art to precisely that "everybody" that democracies invoke in their rhetoric. Wilkinson poses the quandary this way: "I think artists are starting to feel that they themselves need a context for their work – and that it’s out in the community. But how do we manage the responsibility for this language?"
Sandra Dupret, curator of exhibitions at Wayne State University galleries, relates an anecdote about last winter’s exhibition Laughter 10 Years After, which included selections by African-American artist Carrie Mae Weems. One of the pieces depicted a black man and an ape, beneath which was a racist joke comparing the two. African-American custodians responded with anger, incomprehension and amazement that the university would exhibit such a work. Dupret spent an hour explaining the piece and reading from Weems’ statements about it. But in the end, the workers said that while they understood better why Weems had created the series – to call attention to a tradition of racist humor – they felt that it was fundamentally offensive.
When Bourgeau, a young white artist, uses the word "nigger," flags go up all over town. Why is he any less naive than the white rapper portrayed by Danny Hoch in the recent film Whiteboys, whose love of hip hop makes him incorrectly assume ownership of a painful, inflammatory word? How is this use of the word different from the numbing oppression that black folks have endured from whites all these centuries?
Grandstanding commentators complaining about Beal’s condescension to museum-goers miss the point entirely. The real condescension is in the act of provocation itself that basically assumes that only the most blatant shocks will be understood by the "general public," that only shit flung in well-placed exhibitions will be effective.
Bourgeau’s work has already stimulated a discussion about art that we should be having all the time. However, Beal has the right and responsibility to oversee everything that his public forum presents, much like the editor of this paper expects to know what the hell is going on under his charge.
This isn’t about freedom of expression or censorship (yes, Virginia, you have the right to yell "caca" in a crowded day care center). It’s about our responsibility to one another for everything that we say and create – something not sufficiently addressed in this culture of winner-take-all capitalism and no-holds-barred promotion.
Beal’s decision actually shows an understanding of the desperate need for education – and certainly better communication – in a contemporary museum setting, and revives the traditional French leftist wisdom that "Those who make the revolution halfway are only digging their own graves."George Tysh is Metro Times' arts editor. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org