February 1, 2014

Because of the recent press about Trumbull High School’s cancellation and uncancellation, and possibly copyright violation (Howard Sherman covers it beautifully here and in a few other posts prior to that one), there’s been a bit of chatter around arts admin social media regarding the production of controversial art.

It feels like a good time to dust off a paper I wrote about controversial art: how to make it, why to make it, and how to make it work.

I have worked on a few pieces in my life that have received responses only in the extreme – extremely good or extremely bad with no middle ground. I was working on one at the time I wrote this paper and it was a really important way for me to take a step outside of what I was doing as a stage manager and look at it as an arts administrator.

Ultimately, the sub-heading of the paper was “Producing Controversial Art Without Emphasizing the Controversy” which I think proved to be both indicative of the subject matter and good advice. It takes the topic in a totally different direction – how to succeed in controversial arts versus how to even get to make controversial art – but the connection rang true for me.


There was an intro paragraph to this section, but I can’t imagine leading this section with anything but this story:

One of my favorite parts of this paper is the example of Afro-Swedish sculptor Makode Linde. Linde is best known for projects in which he “paints black face on Western cultural icons. They are obviously about identity but with a shadowy sense of humor that feels discomforting in their absurdity” (Vartanian).

In one of his more extreme pieces, Linde created a cake for a performance art exhibit celebrating the anniversary of a Swedish performance organization. The cake is in the shape of a woman’s body, with icing the color of blackface paint. It is stylized with stereotypical African iconography, including African neck rings. Linde, situated mostly under the table on which the cake was served, plays the role of the piece’s head. His skin is also painted black, with his mouth and eyes outlined, in white and red, in the exaggerated fashion common in a black face interpretation of an African woman. The cake was intended to represent the act of female genital mutilation, or FGM.

Linde says the he’s “the first one to admit that it’s a disturbing picture but it’s also a disturbing subject. One of the main roles of art is to talk about these things” (Vartanian). A large part of the controversy involves cultural minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, who was invited by Linde to cut the cake. A photograph taken of the Minister feeding cake to the artist, as he posed as the head of an African woman, generated calls for Liljeroth to resign (Vartanian).  Linde responded by saying “if people can get this upset from a woman cutting a cake, can’t they use that energy towards the real battle towards female genital mutilation” (Vartanian).

This really gets to the crux of controversial art for me. It will undoubtedly provoke a response, but what is that response going to be and how can you help shape it?

The cultural minister released a statement that said, “Art must be allowed to provoke” (Vartanian). And she’s right; people freaked out about this piece, but Sweden’s talking about female genitial mutilation.

The people in the room during this event may not agree about Linde’s tactics, they seem to be in agreement that genital mutilation is a problem to be addressed in the Somali peninsula. Making an argument that supports Linde’s tactics, another paper draws to the forefront the benefits of interacting with difficult subject matter by way of visual art. According to Lankford and Pankratz, “human beings are also socially oriented, and thus subject to group biases of class, creed, sex, race, and nationality. But imagination affords persons the opportunity of going beyond their own egocentricity, socialization, culture, place, and time” (24). They believe controversial art forces you out of your comfort zone; regardless of whether you approve of the subject matter, you are made aware of your biases (24).

The Linde affair is a perfect example of this theory. Viewers were made uncomfortable, as was a larger cross-section of the country, but they were also made to consider WHY they were uncomfortable in order to express that discomfort.


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.


Marketing theory suggests that if we are able to prove a benefit will be provided to the consumer as a result of viewing controversial material, consumers are more likely to take the content in. Researchers, educators, artists, journalists, and curators can provide a great deal of anecdotal evidence as to the educational and therapeutic benefits of viewing difficult content through the lens of performing and visual arts. Experts from fields as diverse as theatre art and genocide studies agree that the arts are an important, reparative tool for healing; similarly, people ranging from curators to politicians extol the educational benefits of the visual and performing arts.

It would do a service to the field to pursue empirical data that supports these observations; however, it is clear that organizations can use these existing success stories to market sensitive topics by being straightforward about the content and receptive to educational discussions, not by emphasizing the controversy.

By engaging in the form of interactive marketing supported by marketing theorists, arts organizations are able to have a conversation with the public through marketing materials and public relations opportunities. Communicating with the audience in this fashion allows producers to make the case for the work they are showing, as well as to respond to concerns.

As social media interaction becomes an expectation of arts consumers, talking about the benefits of addressing challenging and difficult subject matter will only become easier and more direct, making the press an additional voice, rather than a mouth-piece. Organizations that already engage in marketing that supports the content they produce will be well prepared.

Sources below the break.

Works Cited

“About.” Healing 10 Years Later. 9/11 Arts Project, n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

Arts and Culture. International Association of Genocide Scholars, n.d. Web. 5 Nov. 2012.

Bello, Daniel C., Robert E. Pitts, and Michael J. Etzel. “The communication effects of controversial sexual content in television programs and commercials.” APA PsycNET 12.2 (1983): 32-42. Web.

Gobé, Marc. Emotional Branding: The New Paradigm for Connecting Brands or People. New York: Allworth, 2001. Print.

Jaschik, Scott. “Art and the College Administrator.” Inside Higher Ed. Inside Higher Ed, 10 Mar. 2010. Web. 18 Nov. 2012.

Lankford, Louis E., and David B. Pankratz. “Justifying Controversial Art in Arts Education.” Design for Arts in Education 93.6 (1992): 17-26. EBSCOhost. Web. 18 Nov. 2012.

“Laramie Killing Given Epilogue a Decade Later.” New York Times. Tectonic Theater Project. PDF File. 26 Nov. 2012.

“Lot 54: Photographs, Robert Mapplethorpe, X, Y, Z Portfolios.” Phillips de Pury

& Company. Phillips de Pury & Company, n.d. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.

“Resources.” Laramie Project. Tectonic Theater Project, n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

Vartanian, Hrag. “Controversial Afro-Swedish Artist Speaks, ‘It’s a Disturbing Picture But It’s Also a Disturbing Subject.’” Hyperallergic. Hyperallergic, 18 Apr. 2012. Web. 18 Nov. 2012.