Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Controversial art exhibits that stir violence and outrage-- who is responsible?

Communication Breakdown by Brian Sherwin

Controversial art exhibits that stir violence and outrage-- who is responsible?

In the last few years there seems to have been an increase in controversial art exhibits that cause a reaction of violence from protestors. For example, in early 2009 violence occurred outside of an art exhibit sponsored by the Vietnamese Arts & Letters Association Center. The exhibit explored aspects of communism and was meant to promote open communication about the experiences of Vietnamese Americans from different age groups.

Over 300 Vietnamese Americans protested the exhibit-- at one point protestors were able to gain access into the gallery in order to deface some of the displayed art. Protestors damaged public property outside of the exhibit as well. It should be noted that the controversial exhibit took place in a community where many Vietnamese Americans reside. Thus, one could say that an exhibit of this nature was not exactly a wise decision on the part of the curators-- especially since there are still ‘open wounds‘ within the community. Communication obviously broke down.

Those involved with the protest felt that a similar controversial exhibit would not have taken place near other minority communities. For example, one rights advocate stated that a photograph of a young Jewish person wearing a Nazi symbol standing next to a bust of Hitler would not have been displayed in a heavily populated community of Holocaust survivors. Others have suggested that an exhibit involving the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) would not take place in a predominately black community. In other words, the exhibit seemed to open old wounds further rather than heal-- at least for those who showed up for the protest.

An exhibit in 2008 provoked outrage at the Pilsen Together Chamber of Commerce in Chicago. A photograph by Amir Normandi, which depicts a nude woman holding a mirror and paint roller in front of her veiled face, was covered by chamber officials after receiving complaints and threats of violence-- the photograph had been displayed in a window facing outside. Thus, anyone walking by could view it in open public.

Normandi, a devout Muslim, has stated that his work serves as a protest against the forced veiling of Muslim women. That said, the protestors outside of the exhibit felt that Normandi’s photograph offended women and Islam. The crowd of protestors dispersed after the image was covered. The 2008 exhibit at the Pilsen Together Chamber of Commerce did not exactly bring the community together.

It was not the first time that Amir Normandi had sparked anger from viewers. In 2005 Muslim student groups were outraged over Normandi’s exhibit at Harper College. Thus, the curator of the Pilsen Together Chamber of Commerce exhibit was fully aware that Normandi's art had the potential of provoking protests-- which could mean that said curator was aware that an exhibit of Amir Normandi’s artwork would potentially be a powder keg waiting to go off.

Needless to say, I’ve been thinking about the responsibility of artists, curators, and gallery owners lately. The following questions come to mind.

* Who is responsible when riots occur over art?

* Does it seem that some artists, curators, and gallery owners are seeking protests by what they choose to exhibit?

* Should artists, curators, and gallery owners be held responsible for damage that occurs due to protests if the work displayed is overly controversial-- especially if they are aware that such destruction may occur?

* Should freedom of expression be upheld even if a minority or religious group is hurt in the process?

* Is it important for exhibits like this to take place in order to focus on the need to communicate about specific controversial issues?

* Could it be that exhibits of this nature are nothing more than dangerous publicity stunts that intentionally target hot buttons that will no doubt cause anger-- and thus press?

* How can a balance be found between expressing social concerns and displaying art responsibly?

I want to know your thoughts.

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

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