Monday, December 7, 2009

Controversy on campus

“…as an advocate of unbridled artistic expression and as a supporter of the Neuberger, I am compelled to write about this situation.”

While passing through the train station the other night, I was surprised to see that Purchase College, my place of work, had made the front page of The Journal News. The article ("Hindus ask museum to remove painting" by Gary Stern, December 4, 2009) reports on the impassioned request of Rajan Zed and Bhavna Shinde of the Universal Society of Hinduism, to remove a work from the exhibition, British Subjects: Identity and Self-Fashioning 1967 - 2009. The piece in question, Sutapa Biswas’ Housewives With Steak-Knives (1985), is part of a major show curated by Louise Yelin, which closes on December 13 at the Neuberger Museum of Art.

Before I proceed, I would like to stress that the opinions in this post—unless otherwise stated—are entirely my own and should not be construed as representative of my institution.

As an art librarian, I am never embroiled in artistic controversy, but in past jobs at galleries, occasionally, I’ve had to make the difficult call about controversial work. Sometimes the stakes are lower—for example, deciding whether to make concessions like lowering the volume of sound-based art to appease neighbours who work night shifts. Sometimes the stakes are higher—for example, choosing whether edgy work should be removed because the police might be called in with allegations of pornography. It’s not an enviable position, and truthfully, I’m happy to be in the less contentious world of call numbers. However, as an advocate of unbridled artistic expression and as a supporter of the Neuberger, I am compelled to write about this situation.

I don’t see it as my place to comment on the representation of the Goddess Kali in this two-dimensional mixed media work, which is at the heart of the controversy. Whether she is or is not rendered in an appropriate manner is a question that others will debate. What I will say is that reading blasphemy into a contemporary work featuring a deity, let alone in a self-portrait, seems almost inevitable, for as Heather Elgood writes, “Among Hindus the act of sculpting or painting an image of the deity is sacred.”

Google the Neuberger controversy and undoubtedly you will read that Biswas has appropriated imagery from Artemisia Gentileschi’s oeuvre through a reproduction in a flag held by one of the four hands of the goddess. While it is tempting to fixate on this element as a means to situate her work in feminism, it is a tenuous connection. This is a lengthy tangent, but I promise that there is a point. Feminist art historians have traditionally seen Gentileschi’s paintings of Judith beheading Holofernes as a feminist response to being raped by her artistic mentor, Agostino Tassi, but recent discussions—most notably by Elizabeth Cohen—counter that we should not project modern-day psychological associations of rape onto a different time period nor identify feminism in a pre-feminist era. In essence, the tragedy was that non-consensual sex destroyed Gentileschi’s honour and ipso facto, her matrimonial eligibility. Rape as a psychological violation simply did not exist as a concept at the time. As contemporary viewers, we want to see Gentileschi’s paintings as a feminist pay-back but it does not jibe. Although impassioned interpretations can seem so logical that they ought to be unshakable, consider that Artemisia’s initial portrayal of Judith slaying Holofernes was at one point attributed to Caravaggio (Lapierre). In other words, reactions to artworks can swing like a pendulum. One group can be absolutely convinced that their interpretation is correct, while another group believes that they are in the right.To return to the point about anachronistic applications of the concept of rape, just as modern day society and Baroque society seem like they would have comparable mindsets about something as horrific as rape, the art world and the religious world seem like they ought to be compatible, especially considering their relationship through patronage. However, art and religion are uncomfortable bedfellows. Assuming interchangeability with their value systems and visual codes has great potential for disappointment and offense.

Ultimately, I feel that removing Biswas’ work would be problematic on several levels. First, it would imply that museums necessarily endorse the opinions and agendas of the artists whose work they exhibit. To remove it because it is deemed to be disrespectful would mean that museums must morally agree with the content of all work exhibited. Where is the line drawn, I wonder? The art world would be bereft of pivotal works like I Like America and America Likes Me by Joseph Beuys, because surely forcing a coyote to be inside a gallery is disrespectful, at least in the eyes of animal rights activists. Rather than being a moral compass, I see the role of a public gallery as being neutral—as providing a context for artwork to be considered and as encouraging dialogue. The dialogue would be cut short with the removal of Housewives With Steak-Knives. Moreover, Indian expatriate artists suffered from virtual invisibility for far too long in Britain, and their inclusion in this exhibition is critical in acknowledging the importance of Indian artists to contemporary art. Even if the Neuberger were to acquiesce, removing Housewives with Steak Knives won’t make it go away. The democratic nature of the Internet will ensure its continued visibility. The irony is that the attention which has been drawn to the work will inevitably expose more people to it than if no request for removal had ever been made. Anyone familiar with Andreas Serrano’s Piss Christ or George Heslops’ Jesus on the Cross? Well, then. Where Biswas’ work differs, from what I can tell, is that it isn’t intended as shock art.


Elgood, Heather. Hinduism and the Religious Arts. London and New York: Cassell, 1999. Print.

Cohen, Elizabeth S. “The Trials of Artemisia Gentileschi: A Rape as History.” Sixteenth Century Journal, volume 31, no. 1, (Spring 2000): 47-75. Print.

Lapierre, Alexandra. Artemisia: A Novel, Endnotes. Transl. Heron, Liz. London, England: Chatto and Windus, 2000. Online.

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