Sometimes, though, an artist’s message becomes entangled with the overall pulse of a viewing culture, and the work itself then becomes vilified. When a woman attacked a National Gallery painting April 1, she used the word ”evil” to describe Paul Gauguin’s depiction of two bare-breasted women.
The attack on “Two Tahitian Women” comes just months after the National Portrait Gallery’s highly publicized grappling with David Wojnarowicz’s ”A Fire in My Belly.” a video piece criticized by some as anti-Christian ”hate speech.”
Last year, current House Speaker, then-Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) joined other conservative voices in criticizing the video’s explicit imagery, which included an ant-covered crucifix. The piece, long-recognized by a very different community as a powerful effort to spotlight the AIDS crisis, was removed by the Smithsonian. (It has since been purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.)
As controversial art goes, those two pieces barely rate. Other times, the source of the hostility toward an artwork is deeply mysterious: In 1974, a man ripped a wood-backed painting from a National Gallery wall and used it to smash a Renaissance-era folding chair into 30 pieces.
Other times still, there are those pieces that viewers feel have tested all reasonable limits of expression, prompting government debates and any manner of public vandalism. A brief list (Note: Links include nudity and profanity):
• In terms of stoking outrage, art featuring exposed breasts and ant-covered crosses pale in comparison to works like “Piss Christ,” the 1987 photograph by Andres Serrano that featured a crucifix submerged in a cup of, you guessed it, Serrano’s urine. The work received an award from a program affiliated with the governement-funded National Endowment for the Arts in 1989, sparking a debate on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
• “Liz and Phil Down by the Lake,” an outdoor sculpture of a nude Queen Elizabeth II, sunning herself with the equally nude Prince Phillip, lasted for only daysbeside a lake in Canberra, Australia, in 1995 before vandalism forced its removal. Creator Greg Taylor told the Canberra Times newspaper that year, “It’s a pretty sad day for freedom of speech and freedom of expression when you can’t even put a piece of art up without its opponents being able to control themselves.”
• “Myra” by Marcus Harvey was egged by protesters the day it debuted in 1997 at the Royal Academy of Art in London. Myra Hindley, along with Ian Brady, murdered five children between 1963 and 1965. Harvey’s depiction of Hindley was constructed of children’s handprints splattered on canvas.
I picked a few of the greats. A more exhaustive list of art attacks is at TBD.