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Art that Offends! Does it Belong in our Museums?

On Wednesday, December 8, 1993, docents from five museums came together to examine the question, “Art that offends; does it belong in our museums?” Docents representing the Corcoran Gallery, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, National Gallery of Art, National Museum of American Art, and the Phillips Collection looked to a panel of experts to help them grapple with the implications of this concern.

The panel convened for this program was composed of distinguished professionals who had worked in art museums, written about art museums, and gone on record concerning topics such as this. The panel consisted of: Claudine Brown, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Smithsonian Institution; Eric Gibson, Art Critic, formerly with the Washington Times; Harry Rand, Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture, National Museum of American Art; and Stephen Weil, Deputy Director, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

The idea for this program came about when a number of docents from the Hirshhorn visited the Whitney Biennial in the spring of 1993. These docents observed that art was rapidly changing its focus to include a number of topics, many of which were considered offensive, not only to the art viewing public, but even to docents who were accustomed to the newer, more confrontational art forms.

The following is an excerpt from this program. It is not intended to represent the full panel discussion, nor can it present all the questions asked; however, it should give readers a sense of the overall context of this fascinating, relevant, and thought-provoking event.

Question: “If art offends many, that is, it is pornographic, violent, emotionally unreachable, or intellectually incomprehensible, et cetera, why is it a museum’s sworn mission to place it on view? Sensationalism? Deliberate controversy so that the museum can appear to be on the cutting edge?”

Stephen Weil: I guess I would start by challenging the assumption that museums feel it is their sworn mission to place such art on view. Let me answer by reversing the title for the program, which asks if art that offends belongs in our museums. I would prefer to approach it, I guess, by asking if art that offends ought to be automatically excluded from our museums. Because I think the real question is what happens when art is selected not because it is incomprehensible, or sensational, or for these other reasons, but for, let’s say aesthetic, artistic reasons that seem appropriate to a curator. But some number of members of the public will find it sensational, offensive, or one of these other things. And I think that is our real situation: not art that is picked deliberately to be provocative, but art that is picked otherwise, which in fact turns out to be provocative when it comes into contact with the public.

Eric Gibson: Well, I just want to disagree with Steve here and say that I think that museums do see it as their sworn mission to put, uh, I wouldn’t say any of these adjectives here — pornographic, or violent — but there is a strong commitment by museums to contemporary art. Partly, yes, to appear cutting edge, partly because they think it is the only way to attract the public and interest them in older art. I had this told to me by a museum director only last week.

Claudine Brown: I think one of the issues that is very clear to me is that different communities have different standards. And, as a person who has worked in the arts community for more than fifteen years, I recognize that that which is often tolerable by [sic] those of us who work in this community may not necessarily be tolerable [sic] or commonplace to persons outside of our community. I believe that museums have a responsibility to show work that is provocative, that forces us to think, that encourages us to engage in discourse, and that does not leave us untouched. I think that sometimes in attempting to do that, issues are raised that the general public might not normally seek to have raised and that may cause them some discomfort. But there are some objects that may cause discomfort in Eugene, Oregon, that may not cause discomfort in Houston, Texas. And I think that we have to be mindful that we are not a monolithic nation, and that issues that are shocking and issues that appear to be dangerous are not dangerous in all places.

Question: What barriers to a complete contextual explanation of difficult artworks do curators face? Why the reluctance to consider the needs of the average viewer when writing about the work?

Harry Rand: Far from being reluctant to consider the needs of the average viewer, there is an enormous amount of energy expended in trying to figure out how to communicate with people who may be casual viewers to the museum going on inside the art community ….

Stephen Weil: I think, though, there is a real problem that underlies this question and one that we’ve tried to be sensitive to over the past years. You can see it particularly in the case of younger, incoming curators who have spent virtually their entire training in graduate school writing for people who knew more about the subject than they did. And the attempt was to try and be impressive to those people who know more. And to turn 1 80 degrees and to begin to write for people who know less about the subject than you do is not something that happens automatically. It is something that I think needs training and a highly self-conscious effort ….

Eric Gibson: … I think the situation is the opposite. I think museums do take into account the average viewer. The trouble is that more often than not they do it the wrong way. I remember several years ago … a series of taped guides to the [Metropolitan Museum of Art’s] permanent collection.

One that stands out in my mind, although they were all pretty terrible, was narrated by Walter Cronkite called “History in Art.” It went through the nineteenth-century collection, starting with Jacques Louis David and moving onwards. You learned nothing about art in this discourse — you learned all about the narrative content of the paintings. There wasn’t any mention of the word neoclassicism, you didn’t find out who David was, you didn’t learn about French Academic art. It turned all these paintings into sort of movie stills, into TV ….

Claudine Brown: In a manner of speaking, I disagree with Eric. As a photo: Lee Stalsworth, HMSG person who has trained docents and who has also taught the general public in galleries, I find people come to look at art for many different reasons. Sometimes they come because of the historical context of the work; sometimes because they really do like art and understand something about it. And, as museum educators, one of our strategies has been to try and get people to come back to see the same work, but to look at it in different ways and to view it from different vantage points and perspectives. I think that one of the real issues is helping people trust themselves to enjoy works of art and empowering them with questions, not necessarily always answers, that enable them to gain some sort of level of visual literacy.

Question: Can you recommend ways a docent can comfort (diffuse) a viewer who is offended (hurt and feeling stupid) by opaque expression?

Eric Gibson: Well, I think one thing that you people and your colleagues need to bear in mind is: I spend as much time as I can watching docents in action, and I have for a long time because I’m very interested in this problem of explaining works of art to the public. And what I see more often than not, especially with abstract art and difficult contemporary art — difficult for whatever reason — is that the docents often feel awkward and somehow personally responsible for the object. I think this is a mistake. Your responsibility is to clearly and thoughtfully and responsibly explicate the work to your audience. But you shouldn’t feel as though it is yours and you are somehow responsible for what is going on in it, and therefore your audience’s perplexity. That only leads to trouble.

Claudine Brown: … I think that the best thing you can do for them is to have them begin to talk about why they dislike a work of art. I don’t think they have to like everything. I don’t think that the visiting public has to give the same value to a work of art that a curator does. I am more concerned that they understand their feelings about the work than that they have good or bad feelings about it.

I want them to talk about it; I want them to be moved by it; I want them to be stirred by it. I am really most concerned when a member of the public is passive, and walks away and doesn’t understand or think about anything that he or she sees.

Question: If a piece is exhibited at a reputable museum, should it always be considered a valuable and lasting contribution?

Harry Rand: . . . Tastes change; museum collections are to some degree malleable, subject to history and policy. There is a certain pedestal, if you will, metaphorically, that the exhibition in a museum entails and implies, that also changes with time.

Stephen Weil: I think we can’t know what constitutes a valuable and lasting contribution until a good deal of time has gone by. And it is in the nature of a contemporary art museum that much of what is shown today as being of great interest may turn out to be of diminishing interest as time goes by … . The very nature of a contemporary museum is to make many provisional judgments. And I think it’s one of the things important to make clear to the public that the mere presence of something in the Hirshhom as part of the collection does not necessarily have the same meaning as the presence of something in the National Gallery as part of its Renaissance collection. The fact that they are both museums can be misleading.

Question: Given the fact that we do not choose the art in our museum, can you give us some guidelines as to how docents could present works such as Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ to the public?

Eric Gibson: Assuming you have the misfortune to have to do this I would simply reiterate what I said before, which is don’t feel that you have to take responsibility for this thing. I mean your responsibility is intellectual; it’s to do your best to provide an intellectual context for the work explicated …. If you have to explain something like that and it troubles you, I think that you should be quite up front about it. I don’t think they can fire you, but if they do, I don’t think it’s much of a loss because you don’t get paid, do you? So, just be quite straightforward about it.

Stephen Weil: I think one way certainly might be by suggesting a range of possible ways in which somebody might respond to an object. All the way from the most formal kind of response, in which you are going to look to the object as a composition, to the most content-based kind of response, in which you are going to look at it as a communication of some sort. You must recognize that the viewer may be coming out somewhere differently on that spectrum of possibilities than whoever in the museum chose to hang the work. I think you can really use it as an opportunity to make clear that there is no single appropriate response, that there’s a wide range of possible responses, and suggest at least what might have been the impulse that led somebody in the museum to put it there in the first place.

Harry Rand: … I think the responsibility here is for the docent or the docent group to approach the curator or director or whoever is responsible and get as cogent and as coherent a response as possible as to what this work represents at that time and why it is on the walls, and at the very least, try to repeat to the visitor what you heard.

Teresia Bush is the Docent Coordinator and an Education Specialist for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., which is the Smithsonian Institution’s museum of modern and contemporary art. Prior to this, Ms. Bush was a fellow in 20th Century Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and an educator with the Corcoran Gallery of Art. In addition to her responsibilities with the Hirshhorn Museum, Ms. Bush lectures in African- American art history at Georgetown University and teaches at Howard University.

Bush, Teresia. “Art that Offends! Does it Belong in our Museums,” The Docent Educator 5.2 (Winter 1995/96): 10-13.

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