American conservatives have become masters of censorship when it serves their narrow interests, from the overpainting of Michelangelo's Last Judgment (er...second-to-last) to the backlash against Monty Python's comedy film "Life of Brian" about the hypocrisy of believers (brilliantly satirized, as I'll detail in a future post), to the Republican "Art wars" following the collapse of the USSR in 1989 (gotta find some enemy, right?). But a new low was reached recently when an artist was threatened with torture when word of his art reached sensitive ears.
The Modern Art Museum in São Paulo, Brazil presented a performance of Wagner Schwartz's piece “La Bête” on Oct. 4, wherein the artist appeared naked before a crowd of viewers who were invited to approach him and move parts of his body. If it were me, I would cherish the opportunity to interact with another human in a brand new way, make possible only in a controlled situation like this.
But if you're a certain religious conservative, apparently you'd be seized with fear that carnage was going to ensue. After the evangelical community went into a tizzy over this event, members of the Brazilian parliament even suggested that the artist be tortured for his artwork! Not for murder, for art!!! Clearly the problem exists not in the event but in some people's minds. It's like suggesting a blacksmith be tortured for sharing his work because we know that blacksmithing leads to knives which sometimes hurt people! The distance between this art and actual danger is enormous. But apparently in the minds of these people there is no distance. In other words, for them there IS no innocent male nakedness, there IS no other possibility in this situation than sex abuse, there IS no art. Never mind that the work was fully curated, that it happened in a closed, limited space, that everyone knew the context and that only those who wished to participated. These people see sex abuse as the only reality. That's very tragic.
I responded to the incident as an artist who loves the possibilities that art opens for us all. The tendency to make ideas we don't like to vanish is no path to democracy. There is no democracy if we are not willing to defend the rights of those we disagree with. That takes real courage! I agree that a lot of contemporary art is hard to swallow (which is why I'm dedicated to facilitating dialog about it). We in the US can clearly see daily what it looks like letting people with arrested development run public policy. We can all rise above that minuscule level of social awareness!