UD faculty artist, student address creative censorship

EXPRESSION ON CATHOLIC CAMPUSES, pt. II: Click here for pt. I.

By: Mary Kate Dorr – A&E Editor and Grace Poppe – Senior, English

“There will be always be subtle forms of censorship,” University of Dayton professor Joel Whitaker said. Whitaker is a professor in the Department of Art and Design and one of 45 artists to be featured in the Contemporary Arts Center’s exhibition “After the Moment: Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe” in Cincinnati.

The exhibition is a reaction to the controversy catalyzed by Mapplethorpe’s 1990 exhibition, “The Perfect Moment.” Dennis Barrie, former director of the CAC, was arrested and tried for charges of obscenity due to the exhibition’s collection of culturally challenging photographs, which include sexual and political work.

“The closing of the exhibition at the CAC and the arrest of the museum director represents the pinnacle to the ‘culture wars’ of the ’80s,” Whitaker said.

It is important to consider the context of the exhibition, which was inspired by current events and liberal ideas of the 1970s and 1980s. Mapplethorpe created art when the AIDS crisis struck, in a time when sexuality became increasingly politicized.

“Nothing happens in a vacuum, and Mapplethorpe was very much of his time and place,” Whitaker said. “The exhibit was very much a manifestation of this time.”

The city of Cincinnati erupted in debate, both supporting and antagonizing the CAC. The institution stood firm in both their support of the exhibition and freedom of expression, and Barrie was found innocent.

Cincinnati curator William Messer asked Whitaker to create a visual response to the original Mapplethorpe exhibit.

“The CAC was very open and said that basically anything that comes in, they would stand behind,” Whitaker said. “After the Moment” was created to honor the 25th anniversary of the CAC’s victory against censorship.

Whitaker explained that what happened in the 1990s in Cincinnati was a common issue in the United States, and Mapplethorpe became the poster example for censorship in the arts, a topic many in the arts community found worrisome. The trial resulted in a changed relationship between artists, people who support the arts, the government and the public.

While it may be an obstacle, censorship can also serve to strengthen the arts community.

“Censorship can be a rallying point for people to respond in creative ways, such as taking a different approach or changing their creative process,” Whitaker said.  ‘After the Moment’ exemplifies inventive response to censorship.

“Censorship is one of those things that doesn’t go away. It just changes the way it comes about or looks,” Whitaker said. “Not everything makes it out there. It doesn’t have to be as high-profile as Mapplethorpe, sometimes it is just an oversight.”

Kiersten Remster is no stranger to artistic censorship. The junior art history major from Cleveland, Ohio, has both researched—and received backlash for researching—provocative art.

Remster’s thesis, “Provocative Art: Bridging Ideologies,” explores controversial artists like Boris Lurie and Max Beckmann—whom she labels “Robert Mapplethorpes.” Both Lurie and Beckmann moved to the U.S. during the 1940s and created jarring art as a means to protest fascism and express themselves during that tumultuous period in history.

“There’s this moment when an artist would immigrate, either geographically or metaphorically or both—where they either negotiate between the ideologies, or they become agents of change and agents of responding to these conflicting landscapes,” Remster said.

Boris Lurie, her main research interest, became an agent of change when he moved to New York City after being imprisoned in a German concentration camp and losing his mother, grandmother and sister in the Holocaust.

In New York, he began what is called the “NO!Art Movement” to call others to social action and rebel against the capitalistic nature of popular art.

As the NO!Art manifesto reads on its site, the movement is defined “from Pinups to Excrement: a social art rebellion.”

Remster is especially interested in the contradictory nature of Lurie’s work: Though he denounced consumerism in the art world, he was found to have between $8-12 million in his bank account from stocks after he died in 2008. Though he critiqued the art world, his nude drawings and paintings contributed to it.

Remster has been largely supported throughout her thesis research; however, her experience during the end of her Berry Summer Thesis Institute presentation demonstrates how censorship of controversial art continues to be a problem, including on Catholic campuses.

“My research was reporting on the provocative, but at the same time, I was bringing forward provocative statements to really engage my audience in the conversation,” Remster said. She was thrilled that there was ongoing dialogue with the audience following her presentation.

“But after the dialogue, a figure got up to close the remarks, and there was a comment made about how my research was ironic to be produced at a Catholic university,” Remster said. To Remster, this remark seemed like it was meant to contribute to the wrap up of the dialogue in a way that would “appease the audience.”

While there is encouragement for these discussions at UD—especially through ArtStreet, which has challenged audiences through the GHETTO installation and several others—Remster said there are still obstacles on our campus.

“As a Catholic institution, we’re not supposed to push down dialogue or feel the need to smooth it over.” Instead, she says, we’re supposed to be agents of change—much like Lurie and Beckmann were.

“A Robert Mapplethorpe could still never come to UD and be displayed in Roesch Library,” she said.

But Remster hopes her project will be an avenue to change the artistic landscape, and that many more agents of change will follow.

To read EXPRESSION ON CATHOLIC CAMPUSES, pt. I, visit here. To read the Flyer News staff editorial on this topic, visit here. If you have an opinion on the matter, email Opinions Editor Steven Goodman at goodmans1@udayton.edu.

Photo: Upon walking into the “After the Moment” exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center, clippings from the Robert Mapplethorpe scandal 25 years ago set the scene. Mary Kate Dorr/A&E Editor