Monet, Manet, Mayonnaise: Is the Art Worth the Controversy?
by Taylor Fitchett
It was early December. The cold gray skies enveloped the law school library and added to the gloom of the students who were preparing for exams. I was sitting at my computer when I heard a female voice in the outer office asking my secretary if the library director was available. This is never a good question to hear at exam time when tension is high. There was a pretty high probability that I was going to receive a complaint about food, noise, library hours, or people with chemistry books sitting in law students' carrels. The door opened and a young African-American law student came in and sat down in the chair next to my desk. I saw immediately that she was upset, and I could tell that whatever her problem was it was going to spew out in tears. I was prepared to bolt to her carrel, throw the trespassing medical student out, and give her an all-night library pass. It should have been so simple. She was there to protest what she perceived to be a racist painting that was hanging in the library art exhibit.
Each year during the summer break the library hangs an art exhibit to greet the new and returning law students at the beginning of the academic year. Local artists often do the shows and we usually find some theme to represent the exhibit. This particular year we had on display the works of Fabienne Christenson, an artist who had done some unique interpretations of classical masterpieces. The piece that had brought the student to my office in tears was called, "It's Manet's" and was a play on Edouard Manet's Olympia. In Manet's Olympia a nude courtesan relaxes on a bed. At the foot of the bed stands a black cat, and beside the bed hovers a dark-skinned handmaiden carrying a bouquet of flowers. In the painting rendered by our local artist, the composition is the same but the courtesan is holding a jar of Hellmann's Mayonnaise. In the piece "It's Manet's" the intent is to draw a distinction between the work of Claude Monet and Edouard Manet, who confused even their contemporaries with the similarity of names. It's Manet's, it's mayonnaise. ...get it?
In 1865 when Manet's Olympia hung in the Salon of Paris, it was considered vulgar and caused a mighty public uproar. Manet had modeled his nude after Titian's classical work, Venus of Urbino, but he had put a real woman of his time in the painting, as opposed to a mythical or historical figure. Over a hundred years later Christenson modeled her nude after Manet, put a jar of mayonnaise in her hand, and rekindled controversy. Who could have guessed that the young woman who sat beside me would be outraged that I had hung a painting that depicted slavery in her library? To her the dark-skinned handmaiden in the background of the picture was there to remind everyone of the unfortunate history of the African-American. She told me that by allowing this work to be hung, I had created a hostile environment. She demanded that the painting be removed from the library. It had been hanging there with the rest of the exhibit for almost five months. My first impulse was to ask her if she had considered the exhibit in its entirety, but I knew the answer.
In the 1980s, soon after I began curating art displays for libraries, I learned that if you cannot tolerate the controversy, you'd best stay away from art curation. It is not for the timid. Art has a powerful effect on us. It can educate and enrich, as well as provoke and enrage. It is extremely hard to predict what people will find offensive. Viewers have complained about a photograph of a raccoon in a salad bowl and not said a word about a photograph of a young South African boy who was a victim of a tire burning. I received a complaint about a large charcoal portrait of a man in a plaid shirt, which hung in the atrium of the building, and no comment on a Rubenesque nude that hung in the computer lab. In the fifteen years that I have curated art shows for libraries, I have tried to guess, prior to each opening, which pieces would draw fire. I have seldom gotten it right. Art invites controversy, and in trying to create a show that will appeal to all people, a curator is sure to fail. Now, I consider exhibits that receive few remarks from patrons to have been less successful than those that have created a little stir. Still, it has never been my desire to so offend as to make offense a skill, and it was not pleasant to have one of our students weeping in my office. When common sense suggests that a particular piece of work might be offensive to many people, I do not hang it. For example, I remember one such piece done by a local female artist. She had delivered five or six pieces for my review shortly before we were ready to hang our fall show. One rather large painting was a mass murder scene that she had painted as a result of a nightmare. It would have been my nightmare had I hung it in the library. The Christenson piece by contrast was humorous, maybe even silly, but created without provocative intent.
Although for many reasons I disagreed with the student's assessment of the piece called "It's Manet's," she had at least two valid points. It was hanging in a library, not a museum, and she was exposed to it every day. The fact that viewers must live with the art that is hanging in the library is usually a positive experience. They can notice how different a piece looks as the natural lighting changes during the day. Sometimes they pass by a painting they have seen dozens of times and find something unexpected in it, and they really see it for the first time. I have heard students who study in the same spot in the library say that they look up from their books and jump into the painting for a small break from their work. I had also heard a few others complain that a piece hanging close to a preferred study area was distracting. But the positive publicity for the library, the opportunity to educate through art, and the enthusiasm of the majority of the students have outweighed the complaints of the few and motivated me to continue the exhibitions.
The accusation that I had created a hostile environment for a student was not one that I could brush aside lightly. At the very least I would have to decide whether or not to remove the painting in question from the exhibit. This solution had its appeal. The student would leave my office gratified, and I could avoid seeing in the headlines of the weekly law-school paper: "Library Director Promotes Hostile, Racist Environment." But the voice of expediency was muffled, and I calmly began to give the young student some history of the exhibits and my objectives in bringing art to an academic library, particularly a law library. I began by telling her that the discipline of law is sometimes isolated from the rest of the academy and that the exposition of art within the law school not only enhances our experience in an institute of learning, it draws people from the larger community, thus integrating the law school with the rest of the university. The annual shows are publicized in newspapers and magazines, and many people receive postcard invitations to the opening reception.
I went on to say that students returning from their summer breaks look forward to a new show each year. It is a way of renewing and refreshing the space. It is a considerable amount of work to select artists, review portfolios, prepare for hanging and labeling the work, design and mail postcards, and plan the opening reception. But all members of the staff have the opportunity to participate and feel a sense of ownership in the exhibition. Often in the midst of the process we ask ourselves whether it's worth all the labor, but on opening night, as musicians play in the background and the appreciative viewers stroll around the library with wine in hand looking at the new show, we each know that this is the way we want to kick off the academic year. Art is a cultural privilege and certainly embodies the mission of higher education: to broaden the lives of those who travel there.
Finally, I told the student a little about the past decade of exhibitions that the library had sponsored. Many came from local artists, but we made an effort to draw from the larger community of artists, as well. One year we displayed the works of Russian and Ukrainian artists. It was about a year after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and artists were free to express religious, political, and sexual themes in their work-unheard of during the Soviet period! Another year we had a solo show by a sculptor from Utah, who featured children at play. Life-size bronze statues of children skipping rope, doing handstands, and reading books were placed in the lobby and in various locations throughout the library. The show was a relief to those who prefer representational art and had endured the blobs of color in some of the more abstract pieces in past exhibits. And then there were the shows created around current social topics, both at home and abroad, such as human rights, homelessness, and the civil rights movement. The human rights exhibit featured the black and white photography of Dr. David Parker, a physician who traveled the world to document child-labor abuses. On the walls of the library were the faces of children picking through garbage in Bombay, India, transporting bricks in Kathmandu, Nepal, and tanning leather in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Through his photography he explored the nature and circumstances under which children work and the nature of their work. He hoped the viewer would give some thought to how we draw boundaries between what we do and do not allow children to do. The exhibit on homelessness was largely the work of Professor Terry Hitt from the University of Dayton School of Art. He had received a grant from the government to go into homeless shelters and sketch the residents. While he was working on this project, he discovered the artistic talents of some of those who resided in the shelters and incorporated their art into his. Our show on the civil rights movement featured a collage of newspaper clippings from the days of Martin Luther King, Jr. Faces of prominent leaders of the movement and their bios hung throughout the library.
To be sure, the student who had come with her complaint about one piece of art was not persuaded by my presentation, but she did not doze off. My lecture bought the time I needed to determine how best to resolve the situation. I invited her to meet with Tarrence Corbin, the African-American artist and art professor who taught Fabienne Christenson, creator of "It's Manet's," and me. He knew both his student and her work well, and I thought he could offer a more objective interpretation of the piece. She declined the meeting, but the tears had dried and we parted amicably. I suggested that we have lunch sometime and continue our conversation. She agreed, but I never saw her again after that day.
Reflecting on my experience with this young law student, I realize how important it has been to the library's exhibit program to represent a broad spectrum of art in this diverse world of academia. Art exhibits sometimes generate the type of controversy described here, but diversity issues are less likely to arise if there is fair representation of artists and if the curator selects the highest quality of work available. It is wise to have a well-articulated policy for dealing with censorship. I have always relied on the language in the Library Bill of Rights. In curation of exhibits, the policy is the same as for the selection of other library materials:
Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.
And, in addressing patron complaints about art, the language in the Bill of Rights is also fitting:
Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.
It is also crucial to have the support of the parent institution of which your library is a part. There is at our institution a Buildings and Grounds Committee, which has oversight for all parts of the facility, including art that hangs on the walls. They are apprised of the content of the shows well in advance of their hanging and have veto power, which they have yet to exercise. Routine communication with the committee increases the likelihood that we will receive their support if censorship does become an issue.
I encourage librarians to use art to enhance the aesthetics of their buildings, to enrich the experience of patrons who use the libraries, and to bolster public relations. Despite the considerable time that goes into the preparation of these gala events and the predictable complaints that accompany them, the effort is worth every drop of sweat!