Embracing Art’s Uncharted Territories: Navigating Controversy and Defending Freedom

illustration of galleryIn the unfolding narrative of art’s interplay with societal norms, West Virginia grapples with the implications of HB 4654, a bill that could strip educational and artistic settings in schools, libraries, and museums of exemptions from obscenity regulations, making them criminally liable (a felony) for distributing or displaying “obscene matter” to minors. To comprehend the gravity of this legislative moment, it is insightful to reflect on historical art controversies, such the 1990s debate over Judy Chicago‘s The Dinner Party.

At its core, art is a dynamic force that challenges boundaries, asks difficult questions, and births new perspectives. The Impressionists, renowned for their avant-garde approach, purposefully distanced themselves from engaging in government-funded projects, deliberately avoiding any entanglement in the bureaucratic influence on artistic processes. Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, facing intense scrutiny in the 1980s, defied conventional norms with explicit and provocative work. Similarly, The Dinner Party, a feminist masterpiece by Judy Chicago, featuring abstracted ceramic plates and embroidered table runners in honor of women throughout Western history, sparked political debates in the 1990s for its supposedly obscene content and themes of women’s empowerment.

Fast forward to the present, where artists leverage social media platforms for expression, only to find themselves blocked or censored (don’t get me started on the gendered nipple censorship debate). Art’s essence lies in its ability to discomfort, urging us to confront uncomfortable truths and alternative perspectives.

Crucial to this narrative is the concept of obscenity, a subjective and ever-evolving notion. HB 4654 attempts to confine it within specific parameters, regulating what is deemed offensive or lacking value. Paradoxically, in its pursuit to define artistic merit, the bill echoes the very essence of obscenity.

As a curator at West Virginia University Libraries, I emphasize the importance of free speech in educational settings (to be sure, academic libraries might not be impacted directly, but we are all in this together). Libraries, as bastions of knowledge, should champion the exploration of diverse perspectives. Not all histories are devoid of obscenities, and that must be acknowledged. Uncomfortable and tragic events are vital elements of our history, prompting understanding and growth. Museums, too, play a tremendous role in opening up new ways of seeing through historical, scientific, artistic lenses and more.

While the government may extend support to the arts, it is paramount to recognize that art cannot be confined by definitions imposed from above. The very spirit of art rebels against such constraints. Government support, though well-intentioned, should not stifle the essence of artistic expression. It is in this tension that the true meaning and spirit of art are revealed.

The proposed legislation challenges the fundamental principles of education and freedom of expression, hindering the pursuit of knowledge and growth.

In a world that strives for progress, constraining artistic expression (and historical exhibitions and other ways of dispersing information in libraries, schools and museums) is a regressive step. Art and education has the power to transform, challenge, and inspire. As we confront potential legislative changes, let us reaffirm our commitment to the uncharted territories of art and defend the freedom to explore the uncomfortable truths it unveils.


Per the WVAM email:

For those of you who wish to submit comments on this bill, you can contact your jurisdiction’s delegates who serve on the House Judiciary Committee. Those committee members can be found HERE. This is a bill that will affect all West Virginia museums, and it is important that our elected officials hear from their constituents.

Tomorrow, the WVU Libraries are hosting “Hacking the Library” artists virtual roundtable, reaffirming the resilience of creativity and the importance of fostering an environment where diverse voices can thrive. Join us on zoom for free at 12pm ET. Register here.

This just in: “WV bill spurs controversy,” WV Metro News 1/25/24

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