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Is it appropriate? Quality vs. censorship at Open Studio Night

This post was written by on December 9, 2010

Warning: Please proceed with the knowledge that this article includes content dealing with nudity, and makes repeated references to a man’s genitalia.

On Oct. 29, SCAD Atlanta hosted Open Studio Night, an annual art exhibition widely recognized as the university’s largest event. Open Studio showcases the work of SCAD students, alumni and faculty, whose paintings, illustrations, photographs and printmaking projects are available for purchase by the greater Atlanta community.

The event is one night only and SCAD makes an effort to publicize the event and create a fun atmosphere. The entire fifth floor is transformed into a gallery space where demonstrations, installations and live music are in abundance. Family, friends, and art enthusiasts abound, while board members roam the halls next to prospective students. This is the work that represents SCAD, and close to 1500 people attended. It’s a big deal.

So when a frontal male nude photograph was removed just prior to the opening, and a student protest ensued during Open Studio as a result, many people at SCAD Atlanta were not pleased. The photograph in question belonged to Nicole Craine, a fourth year photography student with a minor in printmaking. Craine’s black and white untitled piece depicts a man in a seated position, his arms resting in his lap, while cradling his genitalia. The photograph is cropped so the man’s identity remains anonymous. The man is not shown to be doing anything — that is, he is not performing any act. He is naked, seated against a black background, cupping his scrotum.

Untitled, by Nicole Craine

Untitled, by Nicole Craine

Students upset by the removal of Craine’s piece entered the event space with posters of the photograph affixed to their clothing. The word “censored” was printed across the poster, concealing the man’s penis, and the students handed out flyers encouraging attendees to visit a blog created as a response to the photograph removal, Censored by SCAD.

The varying points of view

The Censored by SCAD blog, maintained by anonymous authors, states that the removal of Craine’s piece is in direct contradiction to SCAD’s mission, vision and values, saying, “we came to this school to learn about art and thrive in a ‘positively oriented university environment,’ that allows us to push boundaries.” The authors say that SCAD students must “mitigate their work” in order for it to be acknowledged by the university.

Dr. Teresa Griffis, associate vice president at SCAD Atlanta, is sensitive to students’ outlook, but stands by the decision to remove Craine’s piece, which she made in consensus with the dean of fine arts, Brett Osborn. She hopes that this experience can be a teachable moment for everyone. “The photo was not appropriate for that exhibition, for a community open house with children in attendance,” she said.

“All student work, regardless of skill or subject matter, is never forbidden from being placed in the classroom,” Dr. Griffis continued, “and when it comes to public viewing, yes, the work is juried as it would be by a curator or gallery owner.”

But her work was juried by the photography faculty, Craine said, which is why it was selected for Open Studio in the first place. “I was told it was a unanimous vote,” she added. But the day before opening night, she received an email from the photo lab staff, telling her where to pick up her piece. “Don’t tell me it’s an issue of quality,” Craine smiled with a raised eyebrow, “it’s censorship.”

The removed photo is one of a series of 20 male nudes, “each more playful than the other,” Craine described. One of the less “playful” pieces remained on display at Open Studio, showing the back of a male model, arms outstretched, buttocks in full view. The question that many people have in viewing Craine’s pieces is why the male nudity? What is she trying to say? Perhaps it’s a testament to our standardized expectations as art viewers that we even have to ask, given that there were multiple pieces depicting female nudes, albeit in a less intrusive manner.

Inspired by the ever-changing relationship between the person doing the photographing and the one being photographed, Craine believes that now is the time for women to show their perspective on the male body. “When people look at the penis, different types of conversations happen. Women step towards the photo, men step back. I’m challenging this issue of appropriateness.”

She’s not the only one. The Women’s Caucus for Art, proponents of female artists since the 1970s, recently accepted Craine’s male nude series in their pending exhibition “Man as Object: Reversing the Gaze.” According to the WCA website, they hope to accomplish several things by displaying work that shows the “male [as] the spectacle for a woman’s enjoyment or mere viewing.”

WCA states in their call for entries, that they hope to push the male viewer to “turn the mirror on himself” and feel what most women have felt historically, seeing men’s depiction of female nudes: that sense of “powerlessness of being owned or submissive.” Based on the reaction to Craine’s piece by SCAD administration, Open Studio Night is not the place to have that kind of conversation.

“We provide other venues where edgier work is welcome, at no charge to the students,” Dr. Griffis said. “Just because it wasn’t presented doesn’t mean we’re saying not to show it. Know your market.” She is referring to Studioplex, a small venue near Inman Park where SCAD students can display their work without regard to content.

In an email response to requests for an interview, Dean Osborn offered his position:

“…Foundation Studies Professor Larry Anderson and I developed a relationship with a real estate broker who supports the arts and has allowed SCAD to exhibit at his space Studioplex. This exhibition space has provided students with a venue to show work that may not be appropriate for the general public. Many of SCAD Atlanta’s strongest exhibitions in the past five years have been exhibited at alternative spaces such as Studioplex. Students are encouraged to utilize this opportunity and seek out their own venues to show work. Quality has always been foremost in the selection process for all SCAD sponsored exhibitions. This benefits all of SCAD’s students.”

Craine appreciates the existence of the space at Studioplex, but counters that it’s not the same thing. “There’s a difference in having your work displayed in the presence of 1500 people, at an event that was publicized, pushed to the public — as opposed to something you do yourself where maybe 50 of your friends show up for the free wine.”

Craine doesn’t buy the notion of protecting the general public from potentially offensive pieces of work. “At MOMA, you’ll see work that’s controversial, and students kindergarten through college go through everyday.” She went on, “Why do you have to go to New York or Los Angeles to see art that provokes you? Any serious art institution that is set up to educate should want to have this conversation. We’re the biggest art school in the Southeast with an opportunity to speak to a huge body of people. This is where the conversation begins.”

If this continues, she said, referencing the decision to remove work that makes people uncomfortable, “we’re recreating the problem.”

Looking towards the future

And that problem, of determining what makes art Art, and deciding when that art is appropriate, and explaining what that should mean for the rest of us, is no new issue. It’s as old as art itself, and it’s not going away, as we’ve seen recently at the Smithsonian Institute. And although both SCAD students and administration have reasonable points of view, they are not likely to reach the same conclusion about what should have happened at Open Studio Night. But what’s done is done. So then. What happens now?

Craine says she’s been in ongoing communication with Art Malloy, dean of student success, as well as with various photography faculty, on how controversial, but juried work can be integrated into large events like Open Studio without removing it all together. One suggestion has been to create a separate room in the same space with a posted disclaimer, but as of this article’s publication nothing to this effect has been finalized.

If such a seachange happens at SCAD Atlanta, Craine won’t be here to see the shift – she’s set to receive her undergraduate degree in the spring, and is actively researching graduate programs to continue her study of photography. Craine also says that graduate program directors at schools like Parsons and the School of Visual Arts have identified the photo that was removed at Open Studio Night as one of her strongest pieces.

It just goes to show, Craine said, “some of the powers that be may not support this kind of work publicly, but it’s coming. Actually, it’s here.”

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  • the art advocate

    It does not seem the artists should have to ‘know your market’ when an educational institution decides to open artists’ studios to the public. Thus the name “Open Studio.” The work could easily have been displayed in an area with a caveat/notice/warning.

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  • J.S.

    It is unconscionable that an artist could say: “The photo was not appropriate for that exhibition, for a community open house with children in attendance.” It is even more shocking that this shallow prudishness exists in an art school! Nudity is not profanity. Male nudity is the norm in ancient Greek art and prevalent in the Vatican, so should children be sheltered from that, as well? Besides, an audience should expect to see provocative work at an open studio at an art school in a major city.

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  • Artist

    SCAD is operating under a corporate and COMMERCIAL umbrella. SCAD needs to understand that if they want to take their fine art department seriously, they need to consider the commercial tactics they use for Interior Design and Fashion Design and remove them from fine art departments, or at least the students that do not consider themselves to be commercial artists. Censorship in magazines and fashion articles are subject to this type of discretion. Now take that umbrella of thought and apply it to painting and other fine art mediums. It doesn’t work the same. Artists do not get censored out of or “juried” in gallery exhibitions like Teresa Griffis claims. They accept the work (just as the faculty did), install the work for the show and no third wave censor or “juror” comes through the day before to take it down. That is, unless the gallery is completely unprofessional.

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  • Clarkbar

    Female nudes are shown all the time in fine art; the subject wasn’t even doing anything sexual if that’s supposed to be the controversy. This looks to have more to do with how male nudity is somehow perverse in our society.

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  • Anonymous

    Well done, Osayi. A balanced article about an unbalanced act of censorship.

    As Billy Crystal says, “Do not get me started” on censorship. I oppose it most strenuously in all forms everywhere. Free speech is free speech.

    I also oppose abject stupidity. In this case, it seems the censors put their judgment and common sense on-hold. Simply put, instead of censoring the art and incurring the righteous wrath of all those who love, honor and defend the right of free expression — a simple sign on the front door would have sufficed. After all, we have parental warnings on most other forms of media including music CDs, films, television shows, websites, and video stores. It is not such a stretch to alert parents taking their little rug rats, ankle-biters and snot-gobblers to an art exhibition that there is adult material on display. In any event, I seriously doubt that the photo shows anything the children have not already seen at home. But, that’s not my point. The photo is clearly an excellent work of photographic art reminiscent of the work of Weston, Stieglitz and Mapplethorpe — not salacious pornography. Regardless, it was juried and judged as art and should never have been censored under any circumstances. Stupid is as stupid does.

    Of course, I’m not advocating regaling children with porn. On the other hand, what parent in their right mind would expose their kids to porn. IMHO it is simply insane and totally irresponsible, for any parent to take a child into an adult venue where adult themes are displayed among the art work and then complain about naughty pictures. Please, the hypocrisy, entitlement and arrogance are off-the-hook in that. Don’t like the content? Change the channel. That’s censorship on a personal responsibility level as it should be in a democracy as far as I am concerned. Like equal rights for all, to me it is a binary issue. No gray areas. No censorship.

    Message to parents and evil censors: Hello Parents. Does anybody have two brain synapses connected on this. I’m a parent, too and brought my daughter to art museums since she was still in diapers. My wife and I used my good parental judgment on what was appropriate and inappropriate to show her. We did not abdicate our parental responsibility to the tender loving mercies of censors. She grew up better than fine and graduated from UCLA, magna cum laude and Harvard grad school. So, I guess her little mind was not warped by an early exposure to and appreciation of fine art. All fine art. Censorship be damned! It is anathema to democracy and free-thinking.

    Like I said, “do NOT get me started.”

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  • http://www.homeimprovementtiles.com Info

    I’d like to see a female/male series of this image.

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  • Devil’s Advocate

    Actually, I think the advice to “know your market” is good advice. SCAD is not a place that courts controversy, and – much as it might like to pretend otherwise – Atlanta is not NYC or LA. Knowing your market will save you a lot of banging your head against walls.

    That said, I think the student action was also exactly correct – “knowing” your market is most definitely not the same as accepting it as is. The protest gave the work a visibility it would not have had otherwise, and brings up the conversation it is attempting to have with people who otherwise simply would have skipped over it.

    Censorship empowers art. It shows that the work has touched a nerve, and opens the door to the discussion as to whether that nerve is a positive or negative thing. Art that is denied because it is not a part of the conversation the exhibitor is attempting to have (a valid critique, by the way) is, by that denial, given the chance to argue that it’s conversation is one we should be having instead. Changing the dominant conversation is the about most power art can aspire to.

    So I say to SCAD students: keep pushing the institution, AND I say to SCAD itself: keep pushing back. That is the dynamic that creates meaningful and transformational art.

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  • Guest

    This wasn’t the only image removed for content (not quality) from that show. This artist was simply the only one who wasn’t afraid to speak out.

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  • Guest

    “I do what I waawnt.”

    Uh huh.

    Proud of you, Nicole.

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  • pushingforward
  • http://michellecornelison.com Mcorne23

    Great article!

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  • Kd

    I’ve noticed in my short time here at scad that corporate/commercial function of the school. The student body does not seem very radical, and a large portion of the students here seem to a. Be designers rather than theorists, and b. mostly focused on the practicality of their fields.
    Not to say that this is a bad thing, its important to have a venue where more “practical” creative minds can learn. Its a refreshing change from some northern institutions.

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  • Poop

    oh my goodness. IT IS A FREAKING BODY. the body is artistic/beautiful and deserves to be displayed. men have penises and women have vaginas and breasts, stop letting the perverts who can’t see the body artistically remove QUALITY artwork from exhibitions.

    J.S. i agree with you, being a current student at SCAD and seeing the censorship that happens there is appalling, and an open studio should be able to display any and all art work deserving a spot. NUDE or NOT.

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