Kirsten Marie Walsh, 2015
In the essay The Young Person’s Guide to the Pathological Sublime author Mark Dery asks the reader to consider, “when do we avert our eyes in horror, and when do we reserve the right to stare”? As an young curator, I consistently consider what is appropriate for me to exhibit. I am in a position of power, shining a light on particular artists, topics, and imagery. Horror and terror can take many forms; and one man’s repulsion can be another person’s fascination. If I avert my eyes in terror, I am potentially removing an image or exhibition from public consumption. So, is there a code of ethics between exhibitions and their audiences? Is there a “curator’s code” around looking?
In visual art culture, the sublime traditionally refers to landscape paintings—both with and without a human presence—of monumental natural features. Thomas Cole of the Hudson River School and British artist John Martin are excellent examples of artists who captured fear and wonder staring off the precipice of a canyon or gazing upward toward the incomprehensible mass of a mountain. The “sublime” is the feeling of awe within nature, marked by an underlying current of fear or terror. Dery takes this definition one step father in describing the pathological sublime in his essay. Pathology concerns the human body, and more specifically mental and physical diseases; the author cites the example of Dr. Peter Parker and Chinese painter Lam Qua whose painted series studying enormous growths and tumors.
My most personal and powerful sublime moments consistently take place in exhibitions. Exhibitions are 3-dimensional essays: multiple images and objects, combined with text, are layered to form a narrative in space. I define a curator to be a facilitator and a conduit of cultures through exhibition formats: main stream culture, sub-culture, foreign culture, counter-culture. I believe in the power of access: where access to objects and images means access to perspectives, especially the less-than-glamorous ones. But what about exhibitions who imagery and subject matter are too horrific, grotesque?
In the late 1980’s the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. was scheduled to show a retrospective collection of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photograph’s in an exhibition titled The Perfect Moment. The collection of photographs included images of homosexuality, sadomasochism, nudity, and (the most controversial of all) of children in erotic positions. The project was in part financially supported by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and the Corcoran submitted to push back from senators on Capital Hill who didn't want tax dollars supporting the exhibition’s content. Eventually The Perfect Moment was presented by The Washington Project for the Arts (WPA). During the WPA’s 35th Anniversary the controversy was summarized on the organization website:
Mapplethorpe’s images, along with Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ of 1987… were generating considerable public debate. On Capitol Hill, Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) was attempting to limit taxpayer support for what he termed the “indecent” and “obscene” imagery of these and other artists by introducing a constitutional amendment to disavow the use of tax dollars for “offensive” projects. Countering these views were arts advocates and lawmakers… who questioned whether “indecent” and “obscene” could ever be defined, and who were deeply concerned about the bill’s implications of censorship.
Stepping away from the topic of what art forms government money should or can support, arts advocates asked the question whether you could ever define what is “indecent”, “obscene”—and in the case of the pathologically sublime, what is “horrific” or “terrifying”. I agree that the public reserves the right to look or avert our eyes from any kind of image. We also have the right to determine what kind of image is defined as pleasurable or gruesome. The choice to engage is a personal and private one. The Perfect Moment was exhibited in a walled space, and the audience had a choice to visit. What does this mean for curators who develop exhibitions? What is the code of ethics around showing these image for social and culture consumption?
Several museum organizations have suggested and written a “Curator’s Code of Ethics”. In each of them, several core principles reappear. Curators are responsible for: actively researching the object, accurately interpreting the object both historically and culturally, maintaining the creator’s initial intentions, and advocating for the public’s right to experience and personally interpret the object. As a curator, I am obligated to provide context for the objects and images shown. Some of my most memorable exhibitions, Ai Wei Wei’s “Sunflower Series” at the Tate Gallery, the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., and the recent Matisse show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, established a narrative with objects, text, site, and arrangement—context.
I do not believe that the presentation of any image goes un-curated today; we are all curators in some way, making the act of looking an even more social and cultural experience. It is therefore the responsibility of the collector/curator to present the images within context. Dery’s example of Lam Qua’s tumor paintings become educational as well as visually compelling through explanation. The potential horror in these images vanishes, for me, with context. As my career progresses, and I develop exhibitions which contain “obscene” or “offensive” imagery, I will advocate for the public’s right to view the images as long as I have presented the work responsibly and under a “curator’s code of ethics”.
Parks, John A. "The Sublime and the Beautiful: Painting the Hudson Valley." Artist Daily. 17 July 2009. Web. 21 Mar. 2015. <http://www.artistdaily.com/blogs/features/archive/2009/07/17/the-sublime-and-the-beautiful-painting-the-hudson-valley.aspx>.
Martin Myrone, ‘John Martin’s Last Judgement Triptych: The Apocalyptic Sublime in the Age of Spectacle’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, January 2013, Web 21 March 2015. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime/martin-myrone-john-martins-last-judgement-triptych-the-apocalyptic-sublime-in-the-age-of-r1141419>.
"Peter Parker's Lam Qua Paintings Digitized Collection." Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library. 1 Jan. 2009. Web. 20 Mar. 2015. <http://cushing.med.yale.edu/gsdl/collect/ppdcdot/>.
Smith, Nathan. "Op-ed: After 25 Years, Mapplethorpe's Photos Still Crack the Bullwhip." Advocate. 14 Oct. 2014. Web. 20 Mar. 2015. <http://www.advocate.com/commentary/2014/10/17/op-ed-after-25-years-mapplethorpes-photos-still-crack-bullwhip>.
"Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment." Catalyst. Washington Project for the Arts, Jan. 2015. Web. 21 Mar. 2015. <http://catalyst.wpadc.org/?p=2845>.