Every now and then an artwork is attacked. The stated reasons vary, but when Susan Burns attempted to damage a Paul Gauguin painting at the National Gallery in Washington D.C., her reasons initially appeared to be moral outrage: “I feel that Gauguin is evil … He has nudity and is bad for the children. He has two women in the painting and it’s very homosexual. I was trying to remove it. I think it should be burned.”
Ms. Burns does raise a valid point here – not about the innocuous non-sexual content of the painting, but about the artist himself. He was bad for children, and as with many artists (Micheal Jackson, Lewis Carroll) and other accomplished individuals, there is some unease about separating the person from the achievements.
Ms. Burns continued her explanation for the attack on the painting by claiming : “I am from the American CIA and I have a radio in my head. I am going to kill you.” This tends to undermine the ‘moral outrage’ argument, in favour of the ‘not rational’ argument. That hasn’t stopped the attack from becoming a censorship story.
The National Coalition on Censorship unfairly took advantage of Ms. Burns’ rant to try and tar all censors with the same brush: “Hopefully next time somebody blessed with an unhealthy imagination argues nudes should be suppressed from view, they will remember that they share this desire with a woman who not only has a radio in her head, but whose rap sheet includes convictions for carjacking, disorderly conduct, trespassing, and assault on a law enforcement officer.”
A few weeks later, when the artwork Piss Christ was attacked (again), the Washington Post spotted a trend, and asked “Is controversial art an endangered species?” Meanwhile, Flavorwire took a lighter and amusingly educational approach to controversial art, by depicting several famous works all cleaned up.
Of course, the real artistic obscenities are in the power relationships portrayed and implied, not revealed body parts. As Linda Williams explained in her feminist analysis of adult films, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the ‘Frenzy of the Visible‘, “the symbolic dominance of the phallus is not overthrown by the literal curtailment of the penis.”
Unfortunately, no amount of black bars, fig leaves, bleeped words, secret museums, or curtained back rooms can cover up symbolic issues. To censor symbolic issues we would need to move into the very dangerous area of censoring ideas. However, the idea of children as sex objects, apparently promoted by Gauguin, Jackson, and Carroll, and sadly many others (whether or not it is, so to speak, explicit in their work) is one that deserves censoring.
So if others can claim Ms. Burns acted as a censor, I could claim she acted as a defender of children, and deserves our thanks. On the other hand, if controversial art is just revealing social issues that need to be addressed, the last thing we want to do is destroy it. What Ms. Burns really deserves is good medical care.