Thursday, 13 December 2007

A Photo Affair

The Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, The Netherlands, has evoked quite the debate after refusing to display a work of art last week. The museum selected a series of photographs by the Iranian artist Sooreh Hera, but decided a week before display to refuse one of the photographs in a critical series on the Iranian Muslim view on homosexuality. The museum director Wim van Krimpen was of the opinion that this particular picture was purely made to cause an uproar and decided not to make his museum a part of it. He did accept the other photos of the series to be on display. The photos show men in promiscuous positions, obviously referring to homosexuality. The faces of these men are however covered with masks. These masks show the likenesses of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and his son in law Ali. Sooreh Hera wants to display, and protest against, the hypocrisy of Iranian president Ahmadinejad’s statements on the non-existence of homosexuality in Iran.

The refusal of the museum to display this one photo came after, amongst others, protests from the Islamic Democrats. This party is represented in the city council of The Hague and protested because they see these photos as very hurtful and insulting. The debate it has led to is focused on whether this is yet another instance in Dutch society where fear for Islamic fundamentalism prevailed in decision making. This is not to say that the Islamic Democrats are fundamentalists in any way but that the display of these photos could lead to repercussions in the future. In my opinion, on the one hand, the museum director has the full right to refuse this picture if, to him, it does not feel right to display it. He tried to prevent his museum from being part of one of the most heated controversies in the past few years. However, this refusal led to full media attention. On the other hand, the artist has the full right to make works as she wishes. Art will not always please everyone and when displayed in a museum it is an individual choice whether to go and see it or not. If you do not want to be confronted with certain matters, you simply do not go to the museum.

Dutch Muslims felt the need to speak up in these times in which a Dutch politician, Geert Wilders, makes one insulting (and insane) anti-Islam proposition in the parliament after another. Similarly, the artist felt the need to speak up against what she views as the intolerance of Islam for homosexuality. With his goodwill move, the museum director tried to prevent his museum from being caught up in this debate. By now, MuseumgoudA in Gouda has decided to display the full series. So if this post made you curious about what triggered this debate, you know where to go. However, to avoid disappointment, do not get your hopes up, because the photos are not that great. Any way, let us in the end value a free country like the Netherlands, which provides the opportunities for all these decisions and actions simultaneously.


Will C. said...

It might be interesting to relate this story to another conflict between artist intent and museum display recently. Though a bit different, the decision of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, or MassMOCA, to display in its unfinished state a large scale installation by the Swiss artist Christoph Büchel raised similar questions about the relation of artist and museum. Büchel fans like Roberta Smith of the New York Times bayed for blood, criticizing MassMOCA for going against the saintly sculptor's intentions, while others highlighted the fact that the artist had gone wildly over budget and was calling for the museum to buy for the installation in addition to a two story house, trailer, and police car, an airplane.

While a commercial artspace has the ability to present unmoderated the work of artists on its roster, a PUBLIC museum, ideally a place for quality works of art that better the lives of the people it serves, has the duty not to fall prey to the vanity of contemporary artist-geniuses but to assert its judgment of quality. If the scholars in charge of a museum judge works to be of questionable artistic merit or egregiously offensive to members of the community, it is their duty as public employees not to display them.

Though an institution like MassMOCA is about as close to a commercial artspace as a museum ever gets, even they were forced to step in and assert their authority when an artist they had commissioned to fill a space proved unable to do so within budget.

Without having seen the works in question, it sounds like the Gemeentemuseum acted with similarly sound justification in this case. Now if only their leadership would do something about their revolting H. P. Berlage building that calls to mind an ammonia-soaked 1930s middle school, the unfortunate lower level in which a pounding techno soundtrack accompanies the visitor as he browses choice works of the Hague school, and pandering exhibitions that include, in spring '06, one that had as it's unifying principle something along the lines of "oooh, look at all the birdieeesss" complete with bird tracks on the gallery floors.

Lieke W. said...

ha, you know exactly where to hurt, when accusing Berlage (one of the biggest architects in Dutch history) of making revolting buildings. I am sure that many disagree (I do I do!)

Also, I would say that the aim of a public museum to "better the lives of the people" sounds quite old-fashioned. In my opinion, a public museum must also contribute to disuccsions and debates going on in society, which the Gemeentemuseum obviously considered by selecting these photographs. This ultimately leads to (self)reflection, which is a higher good than authoratively trying to better people's lives. This case is not at all about vanity of the artist, I see how this fits your contemporary-arts-view, but I think, she makes a valuable point. It is more that the way she expressed it, troubled the museum and many others.

oh, and you must know by now how much the Dutch love techno, it is true culture ;)

Paisid A. said...

photography + politics, always an explosive combination :-)

a related case: No Paris trip for Russia's kissing policemen

Will C. said...

I'm a bit late but I feel I must respond to Lieke's comment. If it's "old-fashioned" to believe in the museum's potential to be a force for good, I'll gladly be called old-fashioned. A museum encourages reflection and enables learning by making critical judgments about the works in its care. Presenting things of quality to the public should encourage the dialogues you speak of. It is the mission of a museum to engage and inspire its public. If a segment of that public is alienated by the museum and thus unable to benefit from the institution, there is a serious problem and the administration must act.

Again, I haven't seen the works in question but it is the duty of the curators and director of public museums to make difficult value judgments from their positions of authority. The museum is not, and should not be, a white-walled neutral space for artists to run wild. There is a place for that but it is not the public museum. I worry about the implication in what you're saying: that the judgment of the museum scholar cum public servant should be subordinated to the will of the artist.

Will C. said...

In a recent Q&A session, Philippe de Montebello articulated better than I could the difference between exercising scholarly authority and authoritarianism:

Lee Rosenbaum: What would you point to as your proudest accomplishments?

Philippe de Montebello: After three decades, I don't wish to point to a single thing. The question is difficult to answer because, first, I suffer from a cultural reticence of self, and I find it very difficult to tout my own horn, so to speak. From my point of view, I would say it's the ability to initiate and do any number of programs based on fundamental philosophical principles that include an absolute dedication to excellence, faithfulness to integrity and the courage to maintain institutional authority, by which I do not mean authoritarianism. I think far too many institutions, in a misguided sense of democratic ideal, fail to exercise their authoritiy and tend to do things in a muddle.

Lieke W. said...

Will, do not let your worries lead you, because this: "that the judgment of the museum scholar cum public servant should be subordinated to the will of the artist" is absolutely not what I am saying. Please read the final line again. I am saying that I understand the intentions of the artist to protest against the standpoint of the Iranian President, as well as that I understand (and value) the decision of the director of the Gemeentemuseum. Please do not put words in my mouth, eehr, writing.

Will C. said...

While I'm relieved to hear that you don't think second and third rate art practitioners should be allowed to run amok in institutions founded for the display of great cultural achievements of humanity for the betterment of a society, I'm hardly putting words in your mouth. I'm addressing, as I wrote, the "implication" or logical continuation of your words: what you did not say but suggested in both the post and subsequent comments. Your final sentence does little to temper the slant of the post. When you say "refusing to display" and "the refusal of the museum", it becomes crystal clear who, in your opinion, holds the moral high ground. I disagree, and you needn't take it as a personal affront.