Posted by: patsycat | April 10, 2008

about art, content and proximity

Those of us working on Universty of KY Island (you’re invited to join us, by the way), tackle some hard real-life questions from time to time. The most recent has to do with some of the artwork in the new virtual gallery and its proximity to the Drug Endangered Child (DEC) Training Network. The gallery is located right next to the DEC, and the exhibit, among other works, contains a collection in which each piece is titled Sex Offender followed by a zip code. (The entire exhibit recently showed “in the real world” at the Tuska Center for Contemporary Art in the Fine Arts Building on the University of Kentucky campus.) The DEC’s virtual site manager was concerned about the proximity, and the possibility of those visiting his area crossing over to the gallery and being affected by this particular collection. He can represent his own view better than I can, and I’ve asked him to comment here on this blog (click on comments at the end of this entry to view). I have added a comment that includes the artist’s discussion of this particular collection. Feel free to add your own comments. And I encourage you to visit the island (or lurk behind someone who has an avatar) so that you can see the gallery, DEC and other areas of the island for yourself. 


  1. From the artist: My work is the practice of manipulation – from subtle to overt. I am an intermedia artist who uses digital tools alongside traditional methods to explore the topography of the intersection of incommensurate, incompatible spaces: emotion and logic, technology and passion, tangible and ephemeral – especially where these intersections affect and create gender and identity. My exploration is intended to bring into being, to manifest and explore by means of manipulation the impossible; to attain an understanding of what lies beyond that which can be seen. The images I create capture the moment beyond perception. The “real” hidden behind “reality.”

    Sex Offender –These portraits are the result of a set of image manipulations by the artist that combine the online images of registered sex offenders residing in the designated zip code into one image. The resulting aggregate is simultaneously generic and specific, existing within the environment of a precise locale and everywhere. The finished portraits do not bear any resemblance to any one of the individuals whose likenesses were used to create them and yet, the pictures created possess a sense of identity unique to each. These visual composites are at once singular and plural and representative of both a generalized and specific threat – speaking to questions of identity, gender and surveillance.

  2. I believe in freedom of expression – and this is a vital part of the college experience.

    The question I have is: can art cross the line? Or is there a line?

    What constitutes art? Who is the intended audience? What is its purpose?

    Andres Serrano immersed a crucifix in a jar of his own urine – are we comfortable with that in our art museum?

    The Virgin Mary with elephant dung was another exhibit.

    9/11 photo showing a body impacting the pavement was yet another.

    Muslems are offended by images of Mohamed.

    I saw the video of David Pearl beheaded. Would this be art?

    If someone wanted to show child pornography, would this be considered art?

    I am not equating the last example with displaying sex offenders in our SL art museum. I merely wanted us to reflect that even in a society with free speech, we may still self-impose certain restrictions.

    If the purpose of having sex offender “art” in our museum was to generate controversy, well it certainly has done that. But without context, it’s rather exploitative and self-serving. 300-400k U.S. children are victims of sexual exploitation every year. Many children of meth users are subject to sexual abuse. Now that offers some perspective.

    And, sex offender pictures can easily be located on law enforcement web sites. That’s a public service.

    So I want to be clear. I tend to be very liberal in my thinking and abhor the idea of censorship. But I also believe strongly on not trodding on the rights or sensitivities of others. It’s a delicate balance. The question is, what will our island use as a yardstick?

  3. This is obviously just my own biased opinion, even though it is averred as fact.

    I’ve worked for government arts agencies discussing these issues. Should public funding be used to support art that is offensive? The simple answer is that it is not the offense that is the issue, but its expression. Executions, suicides, all manner of horror have been the basis of some of the greatest expressions of art in history. In many cases, the artist’s intent is to stir the emotions and to make us think about unpleasant things. But it’s not sufficient to be merely offensive. It must also be done in a way that is unique and interesting. There is nothing intrinsically sacred about paint that makes a painted nude less provocative that a photograph. There must be something more. The artist must offer it in a way that makes us think. Otherwise it’s just wallpaper or, at worst, pornography.

    So I contend that the subject of art is not what we should be concerned with, but its expression. Is the art successful in posing its question? In the case of this exhibit, the artist’s statement was both intentionally vague and unequivocal. She was “speaking to questions of identity, gender and surveillance” without actually stating those questions in words. I am not an art critic, but I would argue that she was completely successful in her execution. The exhibit brought many questions to my mind along those lines.

    The fact that the “neighbors” were disturbed by the proximity of these images to their place of sanctuary is a vivid example of verisimilitude. Just as the neighbors in the zip code areas of Lexington are disturbed by the presence of sex offenders in their neighborhoods (as expressed by the images in this exhibit), why should the neighbors around this exhibit not be similarly disturbed? I think if the question had not been brought up, it would have been less successful as art.

    In sum, I would guard against making policy based on content. I may not like having a meth lab next to my nice art gallery, but I recognize its intent. It’s not a place to promote drug use any more than this exhibit is a place to promote sex crimes. As far as whether something has artistic merit, this exhibit was vetted by the Art Department by virtue of its presentation in the rl Tuska Gallery. They are the experts in such matters and I would strongly urge letting them make the decisions as to whether something controversial has redeeming artistic merit.

    So there. 🙂


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