Controversial Art, Part 3: How-to

This is part of a series of posts talking about how the law interacts with tattoo art and what happens when other art gets involved. I’m still not a lawyer.

The short answer: don’t focus on the controversy itself, or the PR it generates; focus on the benefits of working with the subject and the actual content of the piece.

A study published in the Journal of Advertising backs me up on this. They find that controversial sexual content in television advertising alone is not enough to increase viewership. It increases viewer interest, but doesn’t lead to intent to purchase (Bello).

So sexing up your ads by enhancing the controversial will get people to look at your ads, but it won’t make them come to your show. The work must be engaging on its own, without the help of controversy, for viewers to become purchasers, or audience members.

According to Marc Gobé in his text about emotional branding in commercial advertising, “Understanding people’s emotional needs and desires is really, now more than ever, the key to success” (Gobé xiv). As he unpacks his theory of emotional branding, he reminds us that, “until very recently, advertising has been a push form of communication; meaning the sending of commercial messages without the benefit of any major interaction with the receiver” (220).

Obviously, modern technology has changed in a way that allows companies to access their audiences in a new way. This method, “the multidimensional ‘push and pull’ communication tool everyone in the business was looking for all along,” will allow presenters to take in feedback, interpret it, and address concerns directly, rather than simply feeding information into a media cycle (220).

While the arts are often considered outside the realm of commercial marketing, convincing patrons to attend a particular show is often a matter of applying the same techniques you would use to sell a TV show or a Diet Coke. In all of these instances a producer, literal or artistic, is trying to convince consumers to pick their product. Arts organizations are, consciously or unconsciously, applying these techniques already.

There are a lot of examples of organizations applying them-for better or worse.

An exhibit of Aaron Gensler’s work at Middlebury College’s Museum of Art drew controversy due to his use of gun imagery on a college campus. An editorial supporting Gensler said this about his exhibit,

[It] Seems to have been intended not to inflame understandably tender feelings stemming from this violence and uncertainty but rather to encourage open and thoughtful dialogues. The photographs of students holding a toy gun are undeniably uncomfortable, but Gensler’s photographs challenge visitors to the gallery to think critically about the American relationship to the gun, the role of gun violence on college campuses and the breadth of images and messages about firearms that Americans encounter every day (Jaschik).

Placing the art on a college campus no doubt inflamed the controversy to some extent, but it also directed the dialogue in a way that was interesting and evocative, without being overly provocative. It’s a conversation we’re obviously not really having nationally – the original paper was also written before Sandy Hook, but it applies now, more than ever.

Another example defensibly controversial art (one of my favorite phrases of all time) is going to feel like déjà vu to those of you that have studied any art form, or arts admin.

We got a do-over of one of the most famous art controversies in recent American consciousness, the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe.

In this instance, the controversy was in reference to his work, ‘XYZ Portfolio.’ According to art collector and auctioneer, Phillips de Pury (you may recognize that name from the reality art competition show that inexplicably featured Sarah Jessica Parker), in three sets of 13 photographs, Mapplethorpe uses 19th century compositional technique to examine the relationship between sex and art.

The X portfolio contains mostly images of Mapplethorpe in scenes depicting his own sexual experiences. The Y portfolio contains photographs of flowers, as images of sexuality. The Z portfolio marries Mapplethorpe’s preferences as they operate in real life with the idealized version in a depiction of a black man as fictional and historical royalty (“Lot”).

The director of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, “who braved imprisonment over his belief that the controversial works of Mapplethorpe are ‘art,’” defended the photographer after mounting a show at his facility (Lankford 20). Dennis Barry, said director, “argues that Mapplethorpe worked self-consciously in the classical tradition of art, seeking proportion, balance, directness, and clarity. In other words, it was the artist’s intention to create art in the classical tradition” (20). On the other hand an art critic named “Hilton Kramer argues Mapplethorpe’s intention in creating his ‘XYZ Portfolio’ was to outrage and shock conventional sexual attitudes” (20).

But! The composition of Mapplethorpe’s work is consistent with the period as well as with his personal collection of 19th century art (Lot).

Lankford and Pankratz, in their analysis of this situation, said this: “although recently it has appeared that art and morality are inextricably linked in politics, the more fundamental meeting ground of art and morality is human imagination” (Lankford 24). For me , this is a big, big piece of the puzzle. Maybe a corner piece. In a hard part, though, like the sky or the grass or something.

So making this conversation about the art, and not about the opponent turned it into a public discussion that’s allowed an entire city to consider its opinion about publicly funded art. The artists and curators took a public outcry and turned it into a public conversation about what art is. More than that, the organizations were able to address subject matters that might otherwise be difficult to bring to the attention of the general population—gun violence on college campuses and human sexuality.

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