Issue 76, Winter 1999/2000

The new director of the Detroit Institute of Arts padlocked the doors of an art exhibit, turning a show which was planned to display controversial art into a victim of censorship instead of its antidote. The exhibit, Art Until Now, was closed two days after its November opening by Director Graham Beal because some of the religious and racial artworks may offend ‘important parts of our community.’ Michigan artist Jef Bourgeau spent two years—aided by a museum curator—designing 12 weekly installations representing 20th century art, including, ‘the good, the bad, and the ugly.’ The first, Van Gogh’s Ear, was Bourgeau’s own rendition of controversial art of the 1990s. It included a vial of urine, a reference to Andre Serrano’s photograph, Piss Christ; a video mimicking British artist Tracey Emin’s film of herself showering while menstruating; and a toy Jesus wearing a condom which Bourgeau imagined as Chris Ofili’s response to the controversy over his painting, Holy Virgin Mary, of Brooklyn Museum fame.

Did the so-far-unsuccessful attempt by New York’s mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, to close the Sensation show at the Brooklyn Museum (Censorship News 75) prompt the Detroit museum director to reject potentially controversial art? What commitment does a museum make when it commissions shows? And how is the integrity of the museum, as well as the rights of the artist and potential viewers, affected when a director steps in, and removes some of the artwork? Is it true, as the director of the DIA claimed, ‘Asking an artist to exclude one work in favor of another is not censorship’?