Nudes and Nudities in Greek Art | A Lecture by Dr. Jeffrey Hurwit


© The Trustees of the British Museum 2012. All rights reserved

On October 28, 2012, Dr. Jeffrey Hurwit delivered his lecture, “Nudes and Nudities in Greek Art” to a public audience at the University of Oregon in Portland at the White Stag Block. Following his lecture, Dr. Hurwit led a tour of the newly opened exhibit at the Portland Art Museum, The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece.  The lecture and tour were in collaboration with the Portland Art Museum and The Body Beautiful.


A world renowned expert in the field of ancient Greek art, Professor Hurwit had been asked by the University of Oregon in Portland School of Architecture and Allied Arts to lecture to a general audience and to focus on works of art on display in The Body Beautiful.

The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece at the Portland Art Museum is an exhibit made possible by a collaboration with London’s British Museum. The exhibit, curated by Ian Jenkins and Victoria Turner, brings to Portland, Oregon what will be the only West Coast showing of the 120 objects usually on display as part of the British Museum’s collection of Greek and Roman art.

In what Professor Hurwit called “an extraordinary collection”, The Body Beautiful is an exhibit that has even managed to awe its curators with the striking majesty of its display at the Portland Art Museum.  Hurwit related hearing from the curator, Ian Jenkins that “‘Nowhere has this [exhibit] been displayed better than here in Portland.’ “  And, indeed, as Hurwit illustrated, taken together these works powerfully illuminate a breadth and depth of the Greek and Roman obsession with the human body.

Professor Hurwit’s lecture addressed specific works included in the exhibit and  introduced the topic of nudity in ancient Greek art as representational and containing differing meanings dependent upon context and the individual. Nudity, explained the professor is a costume used by Greek artists to depict a range of roles and connotation.   “In ancient Greek art,” commented Professor Hurwit, “there are many different kinds of nudity that can mean many different things….Sometimes they are contradictory.”

The content of the exhibit “speaks to us today” said Hurwit, and “reveals and celebrates our nature and physical being and bodies.”  Dr. Hurwit began by explaining how the pieces on exhibit in The Body Beautiful exemplify the ideals of the ancient Greek body.

In 440 BC the Greek philosopher, Protagoras wrote “man is the measure of all things.”  While much debate and discussion has surrounded this fascinating statement the general consensus is that judgments about qualities are subjective, truth is a relative thing, and the individual is the judge of all things.  To the ancient Greek mind, however, beauty was not relative.

Polykleitos Doryphoros. Image Courtesy of Professor Hurwit.

So comes the work of Polykleitos of Argos and his Doryphoros (made between 450-440 BC).  Polykleitos wrote a treatise on art called the Kanon and created the Doryphoros to demonstrate his theories.  The Kanon was based on the Pythagorean idea of symmetria, the notion that the parts of a form must have a proportional relationship to the whole, a mathematical formula that determines the perfect proportions of the ideal male body.

The Doryphoros is a study in contracts, in bent versus straight, right versus left, and in opposites.  Yet upon close study, all of these components are beautifully balanced in perfect equilibrium, right contradicts a flowing left, straight compliments bent, relaxed balances flexed, and stillness counters movement. This vision of highly charged repose collaborates to give the viewer a visual image of harmony.

The Doryphoros stands as a visual manifestation of the Greeks’ relentless obsession with structure and musculature, of the youthful male physique, and the male form defined by sharp lines and deep grooves counter-balanced with the exaggerated ridgey , almost-lovehandle-like quality of the hips (an interesting contradiction to the developed musculature of the rest of the form).  This is an idealized perception of what a man ought to look like.  It is the “perfect and the ideal,” a balance of curves and thick musculature.

But before the Doryphoros, Greek artists were producing Kouroi, those upright youthful males, perfectly idealized who blankly (except for that puzzling Archaic smile) and mindlessly stared past their observers and seemed to be all surface and restrained frozen movement.  The Kouroi and their neutral expression seemed to try to resist distracting the viewer by any indication of internal life of the mind.  Into this environment of  these Archaic era nudes, with their hands on their sides, left foot striding forward, arrived the Doryphoros and the impact was instanteous.

Even the marble sculptors working on the Athenian Acropolis began to alter their work—the youthful horsemen on the Panatheniac frieze of the Parthenon became more infused with movement, with the idealized and almost “Kanon”-like interpretation of the male body that we see in the Doryphoros. And, as Hurwit points out, it is an influence and a way of depicting the nude male figure that never really ends.  Just look at the Doryphoros-like stance in Durer’s the Fall of Man….

About a century after the Doryphoros was cast in bronze, a very different statue was made by Praxiteles of Athens.  Praxiteles was known for his depictions of the human body and for his figures’ elegant curved poses, relaxed appearance and a unique softness.  His Aphrodite of Knidos (330 BC) work stands as an innovative approach to the depiction of the female nude and set a precedent for the “ideal woman.”

For the most part, female nudity in ancient Greek art was unacceptable, shocking and somewhat revolutionary. As Professor Hurwit related, Praxiteles made two of these Aphrodite statues, one clothed, one nude.  One island, Kos purchased the dressed figure; the nude statue was bought by the island of Knidos.  The impact of this nude female figure, as Hurwit states, was “immeasurable.”

In the history of Greek art, the female form had previously been depicted with sparse detail or was clothed, in such pieces as the Folded Arm Figurines or the full-skirt wearing, bosom-bearing snake-goddess or abstractly on the surfaces of vases [Hirschfeld Krater, Athens, 990 BC].  And so begins what Dr. Hurwit refers to as a “double standard.”  The male body could be revealed but the female body would remain relatively hidden, clothed, abstract or only vaguely referenced.

And, of course, Greek artists were well versed in creating Kore or Korai, the definitive female representation.  Korai were always clothed, youthful, standing with one leg forward females.  When a female was depicted in the nude it was usually to denote slave girl, courtesan, or “call girl” status.  There existed a general banning or unacceptance of the female nude in most works, however, a notable exception existed in the depiction of the female nude in sculpture, for example with a work showing Apollo flanked by a nude Leto and Artemis [Relief from a temple at Gortyna, Crete, circa 640 BC].

With the study of the development of the nude in ancient Greek art, it is important to realize that Ancient Greece was not culturally homogeneous.  What was happening and acceptable in Athens, might not have been in Sparta, nor Crete.  However, it is Athens as a cultural center that helps us define the period from 600-340 BC.  From this era and a study of the works of art produced during this time, we can deduce that it was pretty much taboo to depict the female form naked.  Women, in art, are generally covered head to toe.

But in order to break through this taboo and this resistance to showing the female form au naturel, the artist, Praxiteles was very clever and thoughtful—he realized the necessity to create a narrative in order to justify the depiction of nudity.

Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Knidos is shown bathing, modestly covering her pubis and blithely unaware of our presence.  We are in the position of approaching her, she knows not that we are there, watching her.  We are put in the position of voyeur, or voyeurese; we become the ones to blame for violating her privacy, seeing her in a compromising position, watching her while in the nude.

Voyeurs paid a heavy price in ancient Greek times.  Seeing a god or goddess without permission or consent or their knowledge was considered an anathema:  the violation would not go unnoticed nor unpunished.  The irresistible erotic power and sexuality of this statue was what lured viewers and made them its voyeurs.  A person approached this piece at his, or her, own risk (stories have been told of young men unable to resist the powerful sexual allure of this Aphrodite succumbing to and physically acting on their lust, and subsequently going mad, later throwing themselves from cliffs. )

The Aphrodite of Knidos was a liberating work as it essentially paved the way to release a torrent of female nudes and precipitated the onset of an acceptance of female form in Greek art as never before.  We see works like the Venus de Milo that explore how the addition of fabric can add a sensual layer to our view, enhancing the form within.

Suddenly the female form, post-Aphrodite of Knidos begins to experiment with a sense of allowable depictions that seem to encourage a sensual and sexual appreciation of the female form.  A winged Nike approaching Athena on the Temple of Athena Nike is in a full length clingy, dress-like garment, her body beautifully revealed by every thin fold of what must be a soft, flowing diaphanous fabric.  Curves of breasts and thighs seem almost celebrated beneath waves of revealing fabrics that cascade in anatomy clinging sensuality.  Dresses fall off bodies, and while these females are not completely naked, they might as well be—the sensuality and hedonistic visual we are given is nothing but entirely effective.  And, so the progression takes us from a cold, column-like hard, shaft clothed Kore to a new female nude defined as something almost always sensual, draped in folds and poses that accentuate her curves and softness. She bends to adjust her sandal.

The male nude remains another story and a much more complex one, at that.

Greek men strode about in the nude in private bedrooms, and at parties called symposia, sort of aristocratic drinking parties, if you will.  In the public sphere, male nudity was limited to the bathhouses, and the athletic games or gymnasia.  There was also the erotic nudity element in artistic depictions of homosexual and hetereosexual, both youth and adult liaisons—art limitating life, and vice versa.

In some cases, partial nudity of woman and girls was acceptable in the athletic games. In the Games of Hera, where virgins competed, females competed with one breast exposed but otherwise wearing a tunic. Hence, for the most part, full nudity was the privilege of men.

The Townley Discobolus. © The Trustees of the British Museum 2012. All rights reserved.

One of the centerpieces of The Body Beautiful exhibit, the Myron Diskobolos illustrates the aspect of nudity in athletics in ancient Greek art.   This nude body certainly asserts the beauty of the body and shows us an example of what is beautiful also being equated with what is good.  And, brings us further into our discussion of nudity in Greek art as having many different forms and meanings.

We have seen nudity with the male form as a way to define and show perfection and the ideal human form.  Nudity is also a custom of the gods, and therefore, a costume worn by god-like men.

The greatest of all civic heroes, we can say, is Pericles.  And our model of a hero par excellence, Theseus.  When we see these men depicted in the nude in war or battle, we can acknowledge that their physical prowess is being shown-off; but going into battle naked was not realistic, highly dangerous, and not the best way to fight.  Yet depictions of nudity in these battle-scenarios symbolizes an elevated and exhalted status, showing a sense of impending victory and courage, and of physical power.  This is “heroic nudity.”

We also see examples of “political nudity”—where political heroes are shown in the costume of democracy.  The removal of their clothes effectively distinguished them as “great leaders” and physically fit leaders in the political realm.

“Civic nudity” with the heroes as citizens (such as two brothers, The Tyrannicides, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who plotted to murder and over throw the Peisistratid tyrant Hipparchus) are depicted in statuary nudes as heroes of the state, in a willingness to shed all, to trust all and to exemplify “democratic nudity.”

Common laborers can be depicted nude, as well.  Shown naked, their sweat and muscles revealing how hard they work.  Even nudity is used to show age from youth to the elderly: one nude illustrating the fresh, strength and slenderness of youth to the other revealing the sickness and weakness possible with the dead, dying and aged.  But both show us a vulnerablility, a fragility, if you will,—one of the young, one  of the old.

Nudity can give us a glimpse of suffering, defeat, and impending death as we see in Ajax as he prepares to throw himself on his own sword and take his own life: he is the fallen, isolated, tortured hero as nude.  [Black Figure Amphora, The Suicide of Ajax, Greek, 540 BC.]  Perhaps “pathetic nudity.”

We see a full frontal of a nude Cassandra in a Red Figure Hydria, [Naples, Kleophrades Painter];  or a naked Hector bound to Achilles’ chariot…both strong and emotional depictions of nudity.  [Attic Hydria, Achilles Dragging Hector, 520-510 BC.]

And, this brings us to the concept of the difference between sexual nudity, soft nudity, nudity for nudity’s sake and actual nakedness, as well as the comparison between male and female nudity.  Nudes and nudity in Greek art do not always divulge the same connotation or meaning.  We have the presentation of nude versus clothed and the revelation:  there is much more to a Greek nude than just perfect flesh and “heroic nudity.”

Following his lecture, Dr. Hurwit led a public tour of The Body Beautiful at the Portland Art Museum.  His tour continuing and illustrating points made in his lecture, provided insightful scholarly commentary on numerous works in the exhibit including the many iconic marble and bronze sculptures, vessels, and funerary objects most coming from the second and third millennium BC. For more information on the exhibit at the Portland Art Museum please refer to, The Body Beautiful.

[This article is a brief summary of the lecture Professor Hurwit gave on October 28.  A full recording of the lecture will be available shortly and will be linked to this article.

We extend a sincere thank you to Professor Hurwit for his lecture, Nudes and Nudities in Greek Art and his tour of The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greek Art.   Also, many thanks to the Portland Art Museum for their cooperation and assistance with this event.]

About Dr. Jeffrey Hurwit: Dr. Hurwit has degrees in Classical Languages and Literatures from Brown University and a Ph.D. in Classical Art and Archaeology from Yale.  He has taught at Yale, subsequently joining the UO faculty in the History of Art and Architecture.  He holds a co-appointment in the Classics Department and holds a Philip H. Knight Professorship.

A leading scholar of the archaic and classical periods in Greek art, Professor Hurwit has appeared in major documentary films and lectures at the world’s top universities, museums, and archaeological institutes.  The recipient of many prestigious awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the University of Oregon’s Faculty Excellence Award,  Professor Hurwit is the author of many works on the art  and civilization of Archaic and Classical Greece. Among his many influential publications that are regarded as standards in the field, his recent book, The Acropolis in the Age of Pericles is considered the definitive work on the subject.

Professor Hurwit regularly conducts research in Greece and Italy, and has been selected four times to teach in the Northwest Council for Study Abroad programs in Siena and Athens.  He has spoken widely across the United States and Canada and has also served three times as a study leader for Smithsonian Institution tours of Greece and the Mediterranean. In 2000, he was appointed to the prestigious Martha S. Joukowsky Lectureship for the Archaeological Institute of America, and in 2003 became the inaugural Dorothy Burr Thompson Memorial Lecturer at University of British Columbia. He has also served on the editorial board of the College Art Association’s Art Bulletin and on the Publications Committee of the Getty Research Institute.

Professor Hurwit is also currently working on Palaeolithic cave-painting in addition to his studies in ancient art.

Read one of Dr. Hurwit’s articles on this subject, The Problem with Dexileos: Heroic and Other Nudities in Greek Art.



The White Box is now taking project proposals for the September 2011 – September 2013 schedule

The White Box is now taking project proposals for the September 2011 – September 2013 schedule. Proposals will be due April 18th, 2011.To apply, please reference the following information and the linked White Box Project Proposal Form and White Box Floor Plan pdfs.

Drawing on intellectual resources from across the University of Oregon, exhibitions and programs of the White Box are envisioned as collaborations with partners in related and complementary fields of creative inquiry at the University and beyond. White Stag exhibition and program development will be an opportunity to advance the public teaching and research mission of the University and to demonstrate new and exciting connections between and amongst intellectual and creative fields of inquiry.

The White Box is comprised of two spaces that can be programmed independently of one another. The White Box, rooms one and two, accommodate large-scale work and group shows (550sq ft each). The Gray Box (600 sq. ft.) is designed to accommodate film, digital projection and experimental sound work, as light and sound can be controlled effectively. The space is also appropriate for intimate installations. The White Box provides professional and technical support for both spaces. Programming encourages curatorial and artistic experimentation.

Project proposals are reviewed by the White Box Advisory Committee, composed of members of the University of Oregon faculty and staff and Portland community members, which makes advisory recommendations for selection by the Vice Provost in Portland. Preference will be given to original exhibitions, curated for the White Box spaces, exploring contemporary creativity and critical inquiry from unique perspectives relative to the academic mission of the University.

Selected applicants will be notified in writing no later than May 2011. The White Box provides space, staffing, programming promotion, and limited insurance. Selected exhibitions are responsible for exhibition related expenses, including, but not limited to shipping, transit insurance, and exhibition preparation.

For submission and further information, email <> , subject line: Exhibition Proposal_Applicant Last Name.

White Box Mission: Through exhibitions and related educational and public programming, the White Box is dedicated to creating a laboratory for the exploration of contemporary creativity and critical inquiry. White Box programming aims to reflect and extend the intellectual work of the University, expressed via fine art, new media, installation, architecture and design, attracting diverse audiences with a range of specific interests.

ART + CENSORSHIP : A Response to the Wojnarowicz Controversy

(L-R) Al Stavitsky, Phaedra Livingstone, Ying Tan, John Frohnmayer. Showing behind the panel: David Wojnarowicz's film 'A Fire in My Belly.' The image shows Christ on the cross with ants crawling over his body and face.

ART + CENSORSHIP | A Response to the Wojnarowicz Controversy

Wednesday January 26, 2011 | 6:00pm-8:00pm | White Stag Event Room | University of Oregon | Portland

Panel Discussion and Film Screening

On Wednesday, January 26, 2011 a panel of experts were invited to gather and discuss cultural censorship in America and the consequent ramifications for the arts, journalism, news reporting, equity and diversity in museums, and constitutional rights.  The panel was invited to convene and address the on-going controversy surrounding the recent Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery exhibit, “Hide/Seek:  Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” (October 30, 2011 – February 13, 2011 at the NPG). The exhibit is “the first major museum exhibition to address sexual differences in the making of modern American portraiture.”  On November 20, 2010 the museum pulled artist David Wojnarowicz’s video entitled “A Fire in My Belly” from the exhibition after it had attracted conservative and religious commentary.  The Smithsonian’s removal of  “A Fire in My Belly” as an act of censorship of publicly funded art has rarely been seen since the 1990s Culture Wars.

In this free and open to the public event,  the University of Oregon in Portland joined the national discussion by screening “A Fire in My Belly” on the evening of January 26.  The video was followed by a panel discussion on cultural censorship in America and the potential effects.

Panelists at the University of Oregon | Portland included:

John Frohnmayer, former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts and current vice chair of Oregon Humanities of Oregon.

Phaedra Livingstone, Assistant Professor, Museum Studies, Arts and Administration Program, University of Oregon.

Al Stavitsky, Director, George S. Turnbull Portland Center and Professor and Senior Associate Dean, School of Journalism and Communication, University of Oregon.

Ying Tan, Associate Professor, Department of Art and Digital Arts Program, University of Oregon.

Moderator:  Kate Wagle, Director, School of Architecture and Allied Arts, University of Oregon | Portland.

While the film prompted many national discussions around the issues of gay rights, constitutional rights, art censorship and religious expression, among others, the panel at the University of Oregon | Portland gathered with the intent to focus on political, constitutional, and museum curatorial issues and as these subjects directly related to the professional experience and expertise of our assembled panel.

Still from David Wojnarowicz's 'A Fire in My Belly.'

The following are brief summaries and quotes taken from the comments made by each panelist.  A full podcast is available of this presentation.  Please contact the A+AA | Portland to obtain the podcast.

After a welcome and brief introduction from Kate Wagle, John Frohnmayer began the discussion with the observation that “a conservative can be defined as a person too chicken to fight and too lazy to run.”  Recalling the First Amendment, Frohnmayer recited:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  He continued remarking that “political pressures…can be intense and nearly impossible to withstand.”  While chair of the NEA, Frohnmayer related the “colossal mistake” he made when a controversial show of David Wojnarowicz’s was exhibited in a prominent New York gallery that was to receive funding from the NEA.  “I suspended the [NEA] grant before I went to see the show…I should have gone to see the show.”  As it was, the show ended up making the front page of the New York Times due to the suspension of the funding.  Frohnmayer recommended a series of steps to work with controversial exhibits that include the following:

  • “Doing nothing is a very clever thing to do and say…just let it go.”
  • “There are prophylactic measures one can take from talking to the gendarmes, the trustees, the donors, the people who are important to the organization; engage in every opportunity to talk and to have a dialogue….always use this as an opportunity to talk.”
  • “Make a distinction between the artist message and the sponsor who provides the funding…There is a critical distinction here, the ideas belong to the artist and a separation or distinction needs to be made.”

Frohnmayer pointed out that sometimes one might hope there is a controversy as this brings attention and dialogue to an exhibit that might not exist otherwise.  Noting that usually it is “the idea in [the mind] that bothers” those who object to what they deem offensive or inappropriate, Frohnmayer remarked that, nonetheless,  “It is a great fundraiser if you are in politics [to show] that you are getting after the blasphemous, after the ‘anti-christ’…but this is not an easy issue.”  He continued that in fact, this is not a negotiable issue:  either the First Amendment exists or it does not and that is the crux of the matter.  “Nothing says we have to have a Public Broadcasting network, or a National Endowment for the Arts, but if government has those, they have to be governed by the First Amendment.  It is an issue of political courage and foolhardiness as self-censorship [ensues] because [these organizations] are afraid of being censored.”  Frohnmayer went on to remark that when organizations feel the need for self-censorship to avoid controversy, this thwarts the main intent of such organizations that exist primarily to exhibit, show, and provide airtime to “what the public market will not fund.”  The demand for a balance between the politically bland and non-offensive and the potentially offensive, controversial becomes a “code word for ‘let’s get in on one side whether it is right, wrong or indifferent.'”  Addressing how the American press covers controversial exhibits, Frohnmayer noticed the role of the press has shifted from a previously more mainstream coverage that would “play it up the middle” to a distinct slant towards the political right side of the spectrum—-Frohnmayer agreed that the Wojnarowicz controversy was largely fanned by the press who effectively slanted the situation from the onset to the conservative side making the situation challenging to respond to.

Professor Ying Tan carried the discussion next by citing her experience as a child growing up in the China colored by the Cultural Revolution.  Her experience as a youth during her elementary school through college years provided her with firsthand exposure to the “extreme, controlled political environment” of China effectively shaping her “way of dealing, perceiving and responding” and became “a driving force for [her] to seek more freedom.”  In 1990 she came to the United States and she recalls that it was and is very hard for her to compare the US to China.  Tan comments that her initial reaction to the controversy surrounding the Wojnarowicz film was one where she “did not want to see Cultural Revolution-like censorship happening here [in the United States].”  She noted that it seems there are more and more examples of censorship-like actions being taken on a broader level (she recalled the recent whitewashing and removal of Blu’s mural in Los Angeles by MOCA); and she commented “it is happening quite a lot now even though I am living here I am seeing things that alarm me.”  Tan continued adding that she sees controversial shows and exhibits as opportunities for dialogue further noting that with Wojnarowicz’s piece “only one side of the story unfolded” as no debate was engaged leading to misunderstandings as to the meaning and intent of the work.

Professor Tan spoke with great feeling and emotion of her youth in China.  Noting the content of Wojnarowicz’s film and his struggle with AIDS, tragedy and the societal constraints the artist faced, Tan empathized with his struggle and with her newness to understanding the predicament of gay Americans who face political oppression.  As a young person in China, Tan says she “had no idea of homosexuality, gay, lesbian….When I was grown, I had no idea there was such a thing….I did not know it existed, I had never heard of it, in China it is hidden completely.”  Tan emphasized that in China during her young life, there was only “one view, one standard, and you conformed to that.”  Given her personal experience, the professor said she found “A Fire in My Belly” to be “very moving”;   describing the artist as “speaking to the pain and suffering so that others will relate to his story….[he] is very successful to speak  of this agony” Tan noted.

Still from David Wojnarowicz's 'A Fire in My Belly.'

Attempting to empathize with Wojnarowicz’s struggle and suffering, Tan said she confronted her own background and shifted “back to [her] own experience,” however, she also noted that this kind of experience “would not be allowed” in the China of her youth.  Tan described her path into landscape painting as a choice she embarked upon and as a genre that would allow her to illustrate the idealism of China and depict “only good.”  It was into this frame of reference that Tan, who had grown up knowing there was a distinct and unquestionable difference between what was allowed to be seen and talked about and what was not to be,  found in landscape painting a refuge whereby she could illustrate “new, good, beautiful and perfect.”  Knowing well that to paint a crooked branch or smallest part of her landscape with something less than ideal would be criticized as the artist “complaining”, Tan used her art “as a service for a political agenda” as did all Chinese artists none of whom were allowed to challenge the government nor the situation.

  • “People who criticize are not evil, they are judgmental, lack an understanding, lack an opportunity to have a dialogue.”
  • “In China, we were not allowed to have that conversation, not to have that dialogue– so much was misunderstood.”
  • “I am grateful to be able to work, to create, and to express.”
  • “I see Wojnarowicz’s film as ‘artistic truth’.  And we have to question, even in a landscape painting, what does a broken branch mean?  What is the ‘fact-based’ justification of the art?  The artist was angry about his AIDS and love…..there needs to be a dialogue:  put the crucifixion image in the larger context and ask ‘what does this mean’?”
  • “We need to be sensitive to the social and political context of each work.”
  • “There is a very different type of freedom in the US than in China and we need to respond to this.”
  • “Each place has a different political environment and how we handle this is important.”
Still from David Wojnarowicz's 'A Fire in My Belly.'

Professor Phaedra Livingstone has an academic background focused on museum planning, policy and practice.  For context, Livingstone offered that she has recently moved from Canada to the United States so she “[has] had a bird’s eye view of many of the art controversies in the US.”  Livingstone commented that she sees “censorship” as a “response to controversy” and that her interests lie in the museum as having a cultural role.  In recent art history, Livingstone recalled that there have been many projects that have been controversial and that this controversy begins when the exhibit opens.  However, she also noted that the “nature of controversy is changing.”  Historically, financial issues have led to cultural values which, in turn, leads back to financial issues.  Livingstone pointed out that keeping donors satisfied has become the key issue as this is where the funding comes from.

  • “Museums are still trusted sources of information and this responsibility is taken seriously.”
  • “You cannot predict what will be controversial and this must be taken on a case-by-case basis.”
  • “There is not just one type of controversy but all must be considered in context and with an interpretation unique to that situation.”
  • “I see a shift to self-censorship,” [however] in the case of Wojnarowicz’s film “this was externally imposed.”

Moderator Kate Wagle asked Livingstone to specifically address how a controversy such as the one surrounding Wojnarowicz’s film should be managed.  Professor Livingstone pointed out that there needs to be a distinction between the represented and the reference made by the work.  “Abstract contemporary art is a hard sell,” she continued, “a lot of controversy is related to contemporary art such as are you looking at this as art or as a literal engagement?”

Livingstone also advocated for a dialogue to assess the controversy and as an effective means to counteract or address any misunderstandings that can then be turned around.  “Controversy,” says Livingstone, “is an opportunity to retool and can be an opportunity to change.”

Still from David Wojnarowicz's 'A Fire in My Belly.'

Addressing the audience from a journalistic perspective, Al Stavitsky turned to the topic of the Public Broadcasting Service and the historically recent advent of mostly insipid programming, or as he said, “PBS is on the brink of irrelevance.”  Drawing a parallel between PBS as an institution of public culture and, therefore, subject to the same censorship situation as what has enveloped Wojnarowicz’s film exhibit, Stavitsky recalled the 1991 PBS distribution of the film by Marlon Riggs, Tongues Untied.  In what is described as a personal and intimate video essay on urban, gay African American men in contemporary American society, Stavitsky pointed out that the filmmaker had received a grant from the NEA to produce this film, in addition, the program that would air it as part of a documentary series, POV (Point of View) had also contemporaneously received a grant from the NEA.  The film was revered by critics who offered high praise, however despite this journalistic media lauding of the film, the production came under fire from conservative thinktanks who vehemently ranted against it;  Jesse Helms infamously called it Tongues United and simultaneously attacked the film, the NEA and PBS for promoting what he considered unacceptable sexual and societal behaviors.

Stavitsky continued, the conservative prevailing thought remained:  the producer has no right to produce his film at public expense.  While almost 300 PBS stations broadcast the POV show weekly, over 100 did not show this episode of Tongues Untied or ran it at much later time slots.  This sort of self-censorship is widely reported in the press, said Stavitsky.  A “multicultural politically polarized world” presents itself to us, observed Stavitsky,  and it is a situation where the “justification of public subsidy” has come under scrutiny.  Stavitsky noted that the question becomes how “can we justify tax-based support?”  and simultaneously noted that “challenging fare [on PBS, for example] will cause offense” –watching Wojnarowicz’s film and discussing the controversy that ensued became, for Stavitsky, a “deju vu”.

Journalistic truth used to be “objectivity” explained Stavitsky.  Journalism was to be nothing of your personal experiences but only a strict recounting, a fair and balanced campaign of facts.  “We tend to talk about journalism as fact-based reporting” said Stavitsky, as relevant facts about a specific story that can allow one to draw a conclusion based on this unbiased truth.  There has been a shift in journalism, noted Stavitsky, whereby now one can be a bit interpretative or analytical if one brings facts from previous events, situations, or a background.  This objectivity was stenography:  one side and the other side….however, commented Stavitsky, this seems to now be an approach of the past.

  • “Being provocative and challenging to your audience makes market sense.”
  • “Public radio is thriving.”  Public radio is seen as creative, less offensive, and more able to take risks.
  • “[PBS] programming is not distinctive.”
  • “Economic pressures are very real and only sort of compound the problem.”
  • “Economic pressures are seen as a kind of censorship.”
  • “Commercially driven media has to be very conscious of not offending their audiences.  [There is a great] influence on programming from the sponsors.”
  • “The fundamental change has gone from a journalism of verification to a journalism of assertion.”
  • “Anyone can assert, write their blog, it may be fact-based or not.  We see ourselves involved in media literacy and wealth….but [it is] how to make sense of it as you navigate this world.”

post :: sabina

Thank you to the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York, for making the video available for screening.