Art retains its power to push our buttons

Action speaks!
By IAN DONNIS  |  October 17, 2007
The Fountain
When a French artist submitted a signed urinal to the Society of Independent Artists, some might think that this was just another battlefront in the culture wars involving controversial creators like Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe.
In fact, Marcel Duchamp’s presentation of the urinal, which he simply titled “Fountain,” took place in 1917, sparking a debate — about what constitutes art — that remains with us to this day.
Next Wednesday, October 24, from 5 to 7 pm, the ongoing Action Speaks! discussion series at AS220 (115 Empire Street, Provi¬dence) will use Duchamp’s urinal as a prism for debating freedom in art. In particular, did Duchamp’s urinal extend artistic freedom in a new direction, or did he signal a descent from beauty into irony and detachment?
The panelists for the discussion will be Bert Crenca, AS220’s artistic director; Francis Naumann, a Duchamp scholar and gallery owner; and Johanna Ruth Epstein, a Rhode Island School of Design professor of art history and visual culture.
Back during the controversy over federal funding for transgressive artists in the late ’80s, a museum director in Massachusetts told me that art should be attractive and life-affirming, not repellent and upsetting. Well, I rejoined, what about Picasso’s “Guernica,” which depicted the German bombing of a Spanish community during the Spanish Civil War? While few would dispute the potent artfulness of the painting, the grotesque reality that it mirrored was hardly alluring.
Similar questions remain relevant in Providence, where the text-enhanced garbage cans created by Olneyville artist Lu Heintz have become the focus of an ongoing debate about art and censorship.
As the ProJo’s Dan Barbarisi recounted Tuesday, the inclusion of text criticizing developers and gentrification came as a surprise to the group, the Olneyville Housing Corporation (OHC), which commissioned the garbage cans as part of a neighborhood improvement project.
While Frank Shea, OHC’s executive director, told Barbarisi that he rejected Heintz’s creations because they differed from an original sketch, and not because some of the funding came from Struever Brothers — which is perceived by its critics as harbinger of gentrification in Olneyville — Heintz and others in the artistic community view the matter as one of censorship.
As Crenca put it, “If I was walking around the streets of any other city and I experienced those trash cans, I would be awed by any city that had the boldness to speak about its history in that way.”
One suspects we know where Duchamp would come down on this debate.
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