All museums are sex museums.
That is according to Jennifer Tyburczy, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina and curator for the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.
“Every museum you walk into, you will find a message about sex and sexuality,” she told The Daily Beast. “The classic example is the white, female nude.” She never has a warning sign, becoming background to visitors who swarm to gaze upon the many works of art.
Yet for decades public outcry and the occasional act of vandalism have forced the world’s largest and smallest cultural institutions to remove works of art from inside their hallowed halls—all because their sexualized content or the socio-cultural beliefs of the artist created a momentary blip of controversy.
So, Tyburczy is reclaiming the cultural space for these artists with The Leslie Lohman Museum’s latest exhibition, Irreverent: A Celebration of Censorship, which looks at three decades of censored artwork from around the globe.
There is an artist posed provocatively in lingerie and a headscarf; a portrait of two women of color, nude, entangled in an intimate embrace; footage of ants covering a crucifix; and a man who bares his backside, a bull whip protruding from his ass. They are all queer artists dealing with sexuality.
“The concept is not only to re-display these works,” she said, “but to also contextualize them within their scenes of censorship.”
Robert Mapplethorpe, for instance, created one of the earliest works on display—a 1973 gallery invitation in response to his first experiences of censorship. The artist had a long history of public backlash for his graphic photographs of queer subcultures, including BDSM (Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, Sadism/Masochism), and erotic depiction of black men.
Most notably, he was the center of a very public debate within the United States government.
His traveling 1989 exhibition, The Perfect Moment, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., caused uproar with the American Family Association and a handful of Congress members, spearheaded by Sen. Jessie Helms, due to its homoerotic nature and depictions of sadomasochism, including a self-portrait with a bullwhip, which is now on display at Leslie Lohman.
“I was originally interested in the ways in which Mapplethorpe has somewhat ghosted all museums and displays of queer and other marginalized sexual art,” Tyburczy stated.
The 1989 exhibition was partially funded by the National Endowment of the Arts, a government grants organization, and sparked the debate of who decides what is obscene or offensive and if art falls under the jurisdiction of free speech. A lot of people still worry of similar backlash, shying away from anything too controversial.
While the Corcoran Gallery ultimately cancelled the show, it turned out to be a highly successful throughout the rest of its tour (breaking records in Boston) even though curators in Cincinnati were arrested and put on trial for obscenity. They were found not guilty.
Similarly, in 2010, David Wojnarowicz’s silent film A Fire in My Belly was removed from the exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., following complaints from the Catholic League, Minority Leader John Boehner and Representative Eric Cantor, who viewed the work as sacrilegious. A decrease in federal funding was used as a threat.
The video, which was already an edited version from the full-length film, depicts a crucifixion being covered with ants, cockfights, Mexican wrestlers, and “Dia de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) figures—all part of his response to the AIDS crisis during the 1980s and 90s.
But not all cases were as civil as a Senate floor debate.
In 2007, the Kulturen Gallery in Lund, Sweden opened a show of New York photographer Andres Serrano’s works, titled “A History of Sex.” The images on display depicted various sex acts, including a man being anally fisted and a nude woman intimately engaging with a horse.
Axe-wielding vandals stormed the gallery in an attempt to destroy the photographs. They did more than $200,000 worth of damage before fleeing the scene. A video of the crime was later posted online, along with another to a white supremacist platform.
“They referred to Andres Serrano’s mixed race background intimating that it was not just the content of his photographs, but also their perspective on his racial background as well,” Tyburczy said of the video, which is also on display in Irreverent. “No arrests have been made, but local authorities believe it was part of a neo-Nazi group.”
And while these works became the center of public drama and much heated debate, censorship doesn’t always happen in the spotlight. Its often subtly, and quietly, swept under the rug and hidden from view. “We are seeing more and more of very secretive kinds of censorship.”
One of the more subtly censored works on display is Michelle Handelman’s four-chan video Dorian: a cinematic perfume and the evolution of its censored past. Dorian transforms the classic tale of Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, into a modern day tale of decadence and narcissism, using a cast of drag queens and queer artists to explore the book’s queer undertones.
The exhibit also includes a binder of Handelman’s correspondence with the Arthouse at the Jones Center in Austin, Tyburczy said, “who, in a very underhanded way, responded to the complaints of one board member who felt the piece was not suitable for children and was personally disgusted by it.”
The video, which was originally shown all hours of the day, began having a limited run-time during the day before being completely removed from display, all without the artist’s knowledge.
“That is the more typical story of censorship that we don’t hear about because its very hush-hush, it’s handled by elite members of the museum world and sometimes the artists themselves do not even know how or why they’ve been censored.”
Other artists on display include Jason Woodson, Harmony Hammond, Corrine Bot, Zanele Muholl, Alma Lopez, Seray Ak, and many more.
While people will surely continue to be offended by works of art for years to come, hopefully Tyburczy’s attempt at reclaiming the institutional space for these works will help preserve their place in history and forge a path for future potentially-censored works to remain on display.
Irreverent: A Celebration of Censorship will be on display at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, 26 Wooster Street, until May 3.