Post-Modern Art and Obscenity

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I am an artist. That is not a disclaimer or a boast; it is a statement of position. I believe in the undeniable importance of art and the futility of censorship. I also believe that art is one of the best indicators of the mood of a culture. Scholars, doctors, therapists, and lawyers can attempt to explain us to ourselves, but their testimony, while useful, will almost always be dry and lacking in emotional depth. I am proud to write in defense of a group that predates and outlasts all other professional analysts of the human condition-creators of art. Chris Ofili is one member of this oft-abused group. His 1996 work,The Holy Virgin Mary, depicts the classic Christian icon with a nonrealistic black face above swirling, sequined green and blue patterns and one exposed breast composed of dried elephant dung. Cutouts of photographs of women's buttocks and genitals dot the background of the canvas. The disturbing elements of this piece are all based in ambivalence-the audience is not sure how to react. To begin with, the multiplicity of media, some of them quite unusual-sequins, oil, collage, and elephant dung-makes the piece a bit different from "traditional" visual works and thwarts our desire to categorize. Is it painting, sculpture, collage, garbage, or something else entirely? The title brings into play the most powerful set of cultural prejudices in the world, organized religion. Does Ofili honor the Virgin or defile her? The caricaturized African wide mouth and nose on a figure typically drawn as Caucasian offer a potential racial slur to blacks (the "Negro" caricature) or whites (the assumption that Mary was white). Finally, the juxtaposition of a mainstream religious icon and a serious art-museum context with two very marg... ... middle of paper ... .... "Post-Modern Art and the Death of Obscenity Law." Yale Law Journal. April 1990: 1359-1378. Reprinted at 11 Dec. 2000 <>. 1-20. Gershon, United States District Judge. 99 CV 6071. The Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences vs. Rudolph W. Giuliani. United States District Court, Eastern District Of New York. 28 Feb. 2001 < rulings/cv/1999/99cv6071.pdf>. Mercer, Kobena. Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1994. 171-220. Nead, Lynda. "Bodies of Judgment: Art, Obscenity and the Connoisseur." Law and the Image. Ed. Costas Douzinas and Lynda Nead. Chicago UP, 1999. 203-225. Stychin, Carl. "Promoting a Sexuality: Law and Lesbian and Gay Visual Culture in America." Law and the Senses. Ed. Lionel Bently and Leo Flynn. London: Pluto , 1996. 65-79.

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