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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

216 Nipples Later: What We Talk About When We Talk About Women, Men, Sex, Violence, Art, and Censorship

Posted by on Wed, Nov 14, 2012 at 1:09 PM

A week ago, I posted about the brewing controversy over a print made by Ben Beres featuring the names of 108 female Seattle artists each depicted with a pair of breasts. The print was removed from an exhibition at Cornish after two of the 108 women complained of sexual harassment in the workplace. The two women work at Cornish, the print was to be displayed in the college's lobby, and Beres works at Cornish, too.

In this week's paper, I follow the public outcry over the censorship but try to propose other ideas, too. You might ask: why would an art critic not be dismayed by censorship above all things? Fuller answers are in the piece, but in addition to those you might consider Arthur Danto's observation that the act of censoring art is an acknowledgment of art's real, not just symbolic, power. The opposite attitude, that anything goes, is easily accompanied by the thinking that "it's only art, anyway." It's a tangle.

I also want to recommend Maggie Nelson's 2011 book The Art of Cruelty for reconsidering what kinds of cruelty might be "productive" as opposed to retrograde.

Nelson and poet Eileen Myles will present their own take on Elles tomorrow night at Benaroya Hall at 7:30.

From the article in this week's paper:

Discomfort is put forth by curators and artists as an important goal—art should "unsettle" people, "break" boundaries, "push" envelopes. If Cornish students are looking for lessons from this episode, they might do best by adding to the top of their reading lists Maggie Nelson's 2011 book The Art of Cruelty. It provides an invaluable, unexpected, frankly life-changing look at the violence of the metaphors that underpin our assumptions about good art—weaponized metaphors ("unsettle," "break," "push") that descend from the specific history of the avant-garde. If in order to be good, art has to break and push you—it couldn't possibly be kind to you—then the only way to make something good is through violence, through acting out tired avant-garde tactics as retrograde as any other early-20th-century politics. Nelson's book is a demonstration that other legacies are possible.

We might use Beres's print as a test case. What happens when the art disturbs the viewer so much that it runs up against real-world systems put in place to protect the vulnerable? If Beres intended his piece as a critique of the dehumanizing effects of women being grouped together by crude physicality, as in Elles, then on some level wouldn't he appreciate that the print's removal is an implicit empowering of the two individual women who are standing out from the other 106?

The whole article is over here.

 

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