This month we’re reviewing and discussing Terry Barrett’s “Interpreting Art” Chapter III: “Interpretation and Judgment: Controversial Art.” In this chapter we begin to recognize that reviewers and critics do not always observe and interpret art impartially. For many viewers and reviewers of art, our personal and societal values and beliefs influence our observations and interpretations, so the judgments we make about a body of work or about an artist are not necessarily unbiased.
Barrett divides controversial art into a number of subcategories in this chapter that include religious, sexual, ideological and racial. He presents a number of works and artists that illustrate each category of controversial art and then describes the different and often conflicting critical opinions about each artist.
Religiously Controversial Art
Chris Ofili’s work, “The Holy Virgin Mary,” created indignation and outrage when it was shown at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999 because of the way materials like cow dung that were used to create it were interpreted. As you read about the reactions of the officials to this piece, many of whom hadn’t even seen the painting, what were your first reactions? Were the descriptions of this piece accurate or inaccurate? Once you read the statement by the artist, did your opinions change? Overall, do you agree with the judgments made against this piece?
This is a painting called The Sleep Walker by Eric Fischl (1948-), in which he portrays a young male masturbating in a wading pool. Fischl creates portraits of a contemporary America with issues that include sexuality, incest, desire and hostility. Paintings with such subject matter are not often openly displayed in American public art institutions. In 1997, Robert Hughes included two of Fischl’s paintings in a PBS documentary called “American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America.” The entire documentary was shown in England: before they aired it in the United States PBS removed two of Fischl’s paintings from the film as potentially objectionable to the American general public. The author asks this question; does Fischl promote what he depicts? Does viewing such works of art actually encourage the behaviors that they depict?
Ideologically Controversial Art
In sharp contrast to accusations levied again Fischl for his explorations of the dark side of human nature, Norman Rockwell, a hugely successful and popular illustrator, has been criticized or overlooked for presenting nothing of substance at all in his paintings for critical interpretation. Over the course of his career Rockwell produced more than 4,000 images, including 800 magazine covers, 322 of which were for The Saturday Evening Post. This piece, called “After the Prom”, appeared on a Post cover in 1957.
However revered his work may have been by everyday Americans, art critics and art historians completely ignored him or criticized him for creating a stereotyped and sugar-coated vision of American life. Among his supporters is contemporary art critic Dave Hickey, who considers Rockwell “the last, best practitioner of social painting that began in the seventeenth century.” Is “After the Prom” a simple sugar-coated platitude of a desired American way of life? Or is the painting, as Hickey states, “one of the most complex, achieved emblems of agape, tolerance and youthful promise ever painted?”
Barrett presents a discussion in this section of the very explicit and controversial art works of Kara Walker, whose Camptown Ladies is shown above and Michael Ray Charles, whose paintings often include blackface figures and other racist stereotypes in an effort to confront the brutal mythology of the “happy darkie.” In a similar and even more graphic vein, Kara Walker cuts 18th century style silhouette shapes out of black paper to create large murals with very explicit violent and sexual content. Both these artists have been criticized by members of the black community who find these artists’ works offensive because they believe they perpetuate negative stereotypes about African-Americans. Do you feel, as some critics do, that neither of these artists has transformed the racist symbols and images enough to make them obviously satirical? Do they perpetuate the very racism that these artists are trying to address?
This chapter raises some worthwhile questions about how moral values and attitudes impact descriptions and interpretations of art — and affect judgments about them.
By Jeanne Beck, www.jeannebeck.com