Indecent Exposure: exploring the boundary between art and obscenity


The NCAC's Svetlana Mintcheva introduces the evening's events.


Last week’s film screening and panel discussion was one of the most heavily attended VCS-sponsored events to date, with every seat in the theater filled. While much of this was probably due to its co-sponsorship by the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), which has a large following in New York, the subject matter also seems to have been a huge draw. Two decades later, the art world is still dealing with the lingering effects of the 1990s public debate on obscenity and government funding of art, and some facets of the issue are no less clear today than they were then.

The event was organized to mark the 20th anniversary of the Decency Clause, a Congressional amendment to the statute governing the National Endowment for the Arts. The clause required the NEA to consider “general standards of respect and decency for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public” when awarding grants to artists and art institutions, meaning that potentially controversial art suddenly became a lot less likely to receive government support. Eventually, the clause was upheld by the Supreme Court. The end result was the slashing of public funding for the arts, and the complete elimination of grants for individual artists. Spinoff controversies over perceived obscenity have followed in the wake of this decision, including Mayor Giuliani’s attempt to withhold public money from the Brooklyn Museum in late 1999 over his displeasure with its hosting of a touring Young British Artists exhibition titled “Sensation.” The inclusion of the painting Holy Virgin Mary by painter Chris Ofili was a particular sticking point for Giuliani, since the work offended many people due to its use of cow dung as an artistic medium. (More detail on the controversy is contained in this timeline.)

The evening began with a screening of selected portions of the film Destricted, an anthology of short films by contemporary artists that explores the boundaries between art and pornography. The screening included works by artists Cecily Brown, Richard Prince, Marilyn Minter, Sam Taylor-Wood, Matthew Barney, and Marco Brambilla. The screening was followed by a panel discussion moderated by NCAC Director of Programs Svetlana Mintcheva, during which various legal, ethical, and artistic issues related to the film were discussed. After the discussion, the evening ended with a presentation of the 2002 film Ken Park by perennially controversial director Larry Clark. Clark’s film rarely gets screened for the public, and even had a screening in Australia shut down by police before the opening credits finished rolling.


Neville Wakefield and Andrew Hale, two of Destricted's co-curators.


In addition to critic and cultural commentator Neville Wakefield and musician Andrew Hale, two of Destricted’s co-curators, the panel discussion featured contributing artist Marilyn Minter, NYU law professor Amy Adler, and documentary filmmaker Tony Comstock. The conversation covered a lot of ground, touching on issues ranging from censorship and obscenity in art to the public’s reaction toward controversial imagery.

Minter spoke about her decision to use imagery derived from hardcore pornography in her art starting in the late 1980s, and her surprise at the criticism it drew from feminists and liberals. Although she acknowledged that some attitudes have changed since then, she still felt that many people have a much lower tolerance for sexually charged imagery if they know that a woman produced it (she cited reactions to the work of artist Tracey Emin as an example).


Amy Adler and Tony Comstock discuss some of the legal aspects of obscenity.


Adler raised the point that the legal definition of obscenity depends on the tacit assumption that there is a clear distinction between art and pornography, an idea called into question by some of the segments in Destricted. The separation of prurient interest and artistic merit at the heart of obscenity law is sometimes less clear than legislators and guardians of the public morals would make it. Comstock went on to cite the groundbreaking legal decision in the 1933 obscenity trial over James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, discussing how the judge’s opinion that the book’s sexuality was repulsive rather than erotic allowed it to pass the obscenity test; this led to a discussion of the implication that something can’t be art if it favors pleasure over angst. The difference between sordid and beautiful portrayals of sex in art also came up; at one point, Carolee Schneemann’s 1965 film Fuses was mentioned, since its combination of frank sexuality and beautifully tactile visual imagery still leaves people uncertain of what to think about it.


Marilyn Minter describes past controversies generated by her art.


As a comment on the intersection of art and obscenity, Destricted becomes a lot more interesting when one considers it in light of this last point. One of the most notable things about the segments screened was just how many of them attempted to translate sexually explicit source materials into art without grappling directly with the wide range of responses people have toward pornography. Several of the short films looked a little like rote exercises in combining porn and formalism, so that a reassuring aesthetic overlay might cleanse the source material just enough to make it acceptable for consideration as art. For example, Cecily Brown’s piece “Four Letter Heaven” used rotoscoping to reshape hardcore sex scenes into a brightly animated watercolor and ink cartoon. Richard Prince’s “House Call” consisted of a few minutes of 1970s porn re-filmed from a TV monitor; the resulting introduction of slight pixellation brought the flow of images in line with his other uses of appropriation as shorthand for a vaguely seedy nostalgia. In these cases, the results sometimes seemed as clinical and distant as they were beautiful, as though the aesthetic element was there to sanitize the eroticism or wave it away with whimsy.

In contract, Minter’s film “Green Pink Caviar” stood out for the artist’s choice to ignore the obvious tactic of combining aesthetics and porn, and instead explore the much more interesting interaction between beauty and revulsion. Shot close up from below, the film shows a pair of heavily rouged lips sucking colored goo from a clear surface, and then slowly redepositing it. (To get a sense of what it looked like, see the still image on the Indecent Exposure poster, or the trailer here.) In the absence of the glaring human element, the piece would probably read as a gorgeous example of experimental filmmaking, something like a slow motion exercise in Abstract Expressionism. The regular intrusion of a gigantic tongue, nose, and lips into the mix calls in an element of disgust, but doesn’t manage to obliterate the beauty that’s there. Minter’s film seemed to get at a deeper aspect of the night’s topic: questions of law and public morals aside, a lot of the lingering controversy over censorship and artistic freedom often boils down to very personal feelings about places where the line between beauty and repulsiveness blur.


A full view of the panel. Left to right: Svatlana Mintcheva, Amy Adler, Tony Comstock, Marilyn Minter, Neville Wakefield, and Andrew Hale.


A video of the Indecent Exposure panel discussion has been posted to the VCS department list at SVA’s iTunes U page. You can download it here. It’s just under an hour long, and well worth viewing if you’re interested in delving deeper into the question of the relationship between art and obscenity.

[Update: Tony Comstock has written a long and thoughtful comment to this post, which you can see by clicking on the link immediately below. It gets at some nuances of the panel discussion that I didn’t cover, and offers another perspective on the evening’s events.]

Visual & Critical Studies