Martin Scorsese, Taxi Driver (still), 1976, (Jodie Foster and Robert De Niro).
Edouard Manet (1832-1883, Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, Oil on canvas, 208 × 264 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
Pablo Picasso, (Spanish, 1881-1973), Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Paris, June-July 1907. Oil on canvas, 243.9 x 233.7 cm. Collection Museum of Modern Art, New York, Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest. © 2010 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 333.1939.
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917, Photo by R. Mutt (Marcel Duchamp).
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in the RCA Building's lobby during the making of Rivera's Man at the Crossroads. Winter 1933.
By STEVE SHAPIRO
Scandal in the arts is as ubiquitous as the thousands of dead flies stuck on one of Damian Hirst’s canvases. Some scandals are minor (or appear minor in retrospect, such as Stieglitz’s nude portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe, or John Lennon’s remark that the Beatles were more famous than Jesus). Other scandals have lasting repercussions: the prémière performance by the Ballet Russes, on May 13, 1913, of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, with Nijinsky’s choreography, that set off the fabled riot at Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysses; Picasso’s outsize painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon; the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses, with its inescapable style and the notoriously lustful monologue by Molly Bloom — indeed, some artists’ careers, such as Oscar Wilde and Robert Mapplethorpe and the newspaper magnate Randolph Hirst, appear to be nothing but scandal. Would it be too much to say without scandal there would be no art?
Scandal comes in all forms: artistic, aesthetic, religious, political, financial, though above all cultural. Would Wilde have been thrown in prison (or Ezra Pound in another era) if he had been a stockbroker? Wilde’s crime was to be wild. Pound, in his Fascistic mind-set, deserved some form of punishment for his World War II slanderous broadcasts, yet the prison arrangement — he was held alone for months in Pisan, Italy, in a six-by-six foot steel cage, with floodlights aimed at him, before being transferred for 12 years to St. Elizabeths Hospital, in Washington, DC — was a scandal in itself. Justice is not always poetic.
The impetus to challenge the artist is as strong-willed as the artist’s need to challenge society. In a recent •New Yorker• Profile on the painter George Condo, he is quoted saying he enjoys “the opportunity as an artist to destroy authority by depicting it in your own terms.” Perhaps some similar admixture of ego and disdain was behind the recent Smithsonian scandal over a 1987 anti-AIDS video, A Fire in My Belly, by the late David Wojnarowicz. One self-styled Catholic moralist took up torch and pitchfork to decry an eleven-second scene in the video, of ants slithering over a crucifix, and in a quisling response the National Portrait Gallery (and its guardian the Smithsonian) quickly pulled the sequence; the entire exhibition (Wojnarowicz was only one artist in a group show) bizarrely continues in edited form; it is a little like scissoring out the Mona Lisa’s smile or painting over the Sistine Chapel ceiling where God’s finger touches Adam’s. One cannot envisage Michelangelo taking no so easily (even if our Congressmen and women do often act like the pope).
The history of the arts is in many ways the history of scandal. As writers, painters, photographers, composers, filmmakers and poets shape the public conversation by reworking their own personal artistic concerns, controversy rears its inevitably horrified head. Leafing through the pages of the arts, one may pause at virtually any controversy and consider most to be useful scandals: John Singer Sargent’s portrait of the American expatriate Parisian society beauty Virginie Gatreau, given the enigmatic title Madame X (1883-1884) after her black dress without its second supportive strap was exhibited and shunned, loosened, at least after the fact, the customary constrictive view of women in public. If the reaction to Manet’s Olympia (first exhibited at the Salon des Refuses in 1863) and Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (the Paris Salon, 1865) 20 years earlier bore similar revulsion on the part of the critics and the public, we may view this deliberate drumbeat toward the future as something continuous, with personal sacrifices (Sargent left Paris for London after his damp reception) and success viewed in the aftermath of acceptance.
Applauding controversial art pieces, whether The Waste Land, Taxi Driver, Hans Bellmer’s disturbing doll photographic series La Poupée, Duchamp’s urinal, the multifarious Abstract Expressionist paintings, or Cindy Sherman’s pornographically posed medical mannequins (Sex Pictures, 1992), acceptance comes sooner with time — but not usually at the time. One might think Bellmer’s oeuvre created under the veil of the Third Reich would be less objectionable after 60 years of subversive art and chaotic cultural mores; yet when his work was included in the Metropolitan Museum’s 2002 Surrealism: Desire Unbound exhibition, his images were grouped together in their own room with a parental warning posted outside, presumably to avert any scandal at the eminent museum. Similarly, one would think, Bellmer's and Sherman’s intentionally provocative photographs would be received matter-of-factly within some months. The fact that they were not, as her boundary-pushing career has proven, points again to the power of the arts to fire the public imagination.
The issue is whether a scandal has merit. Another ongoing scandal contemporaneous with Wojnarowicz’s video has to do with a newly published edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — this one, once more, with the epithet “nigger” substituted by the word “slave.” The idea may be well-meant — aren’t all censorious actions well-intended? — but that is not what Mark Twain intended; it comes at a particularly ironic time, since Twain in his final years dictated a lengthy autobiography that was, in his mind, so volatile that it needed to be held back one hundred years, and that time to publish is now at hand. Oddly, the material Twain considered shocking is, to our thinking, dry and even dull. A real scandal is always a reflection of ever-present fears of the moment and misunderstanding.
When Gustave Flaubert was writing Madame Bovary over five years, he became so immersed in his adulterous heroine that he famously said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” As it was serialized over three months in 1856, French authorities began proceedings on obscenity; the following year, Flaubert, his printer and his publisher were all dished up in court: they were acquitted of blasphemy and leading against public morals. The most notorious chapter involves — wait for it — Emma and her lover, Rodolphe, depicted being driven around town in a coach with the windows covered: one can only imagine what is going on. Indeed, one can only imagine. Yet, jump a hundred years or so and consider the scandals of other novelists, such as Norman Mailer (made to replace the familiar F-word with the awkward “fug” in his war novel, The Naked and the Dead) and John Updike (forced to delete a scene of oral sex in Rabbit, Run), as well as poets like Allen Ginsberg, prosecuted in 1957 for his sexually explicit Howl Two world wars, the Depression, the Holocaust, the bombing of Japan, and four-letter words are the worst thing to happen to America. Now, that is a scandal.
It says as much about how critics respond to work that upsets them as it does about the artists who offend the critics. The mythic scandal of Diego Rivera’s 1934 Rockefeller Center mural, Man at the Crossroads, commissioned by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, a confirmed patroness of the arts, which was then demolished behind draped curtains on the order of her husband because he was offended by Rivera’s anti-capitalist portraits, is often pointed to as one of the great art scandals. The artist attempted to assuage his benefactor; but just as Pope Julius II told Michelangelo the Sistine Chapel was his church, so John D. Rockefeller, Jr. made his claim of ownership known. Artists come and go; only art remains the same — or not.
John Singer Sargent, Madame Pierre Gautreau (Madame X), 1884, Oil on canvas, 82-1/2 x 43-1/4", Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.