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Duchamp To Provoking Popes: The Contemporary Art Of Scandal

Avant-garde art projected itself through provocation in the 20th century, but has provocation simply become a great marketing ploy for artists?

'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,' by Damien Hirst.
'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,' by Damien Hirst.
Daniela Pasik

BUENOS AIRES A white porcelain urinal turned around and signed R. Mutt 1917 on the lower edge: The work, called "Fountain", confounded the jury at the First Annual Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York and was rejected in spite of the event's own rule that anyone paying six dollars could exhibit.

The rejection prompted the resignation of one of the jury members, Marcel Duchamp, the artist who had used the pseudonym R. Mutt. His piece could be viewed for the last time in Gallery 291 on Fifth Avenue, and was photographed by Alfred Stieglitz before disappearing. The urinal was scandalous in 1917, but today is considered a revolutionary landmark in the history of art.

Such artistic manifestations that emerged through the 20th century were termed "contemporary" art in each period. The category might be briefly defined as anything that somehow reflects contemporary society, even as it may provoke controversy in its time. The conceptual artist Roberto Jacoby, a sociologist and key figure of Argentine culture since the 1960s, says "what is considered canonical today, like impressionism, was a cause of scandal in its time, regardless of whether or not the artist seeks it. Because it is what might be termed the "public," that wants to be shocked. They want something that produces emotions and sometimes even moral indignation."

A group work led by Jacoby at the Sao Paulo Biennial in 2010, entitled "El alma nunca piensa sin imagen" (The Soul Never Thinks Without an Image) showed a picture of the then Brazilian presidential candidate Dilma Rousseff (colorful and cheerful), and another of her opponent José Serra (a grey financier). The installation, he recalls, "had nothing to do with violence, but you had people coming to insult us. An idiotic public provoked a hue and cry and the curators were forced to withdraw the images."

Duchamp_Fountaine

Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain". Photo: Alfred Stieglitz.

Another restless public more recently sounded off online. The work "Jesús Cake of Kidstianism" by the Argentines Marianela Perelli and Emiliano Pool Paolini (Pool and Marianela), is an edible cake in the form of Jesus. When the Buenos Aires chief cultural officer Enrique Avogadro — and others — ate some at the Argentine Contemporary Art Fair last May, social media was abuzz with complaints, and the Catholic Church decried it as an affront. Avogadro had to publicly apologize after religious groups began gathering signatures to have him resign.

The artist duo is still working, and the work is traveling the world without problems. Yet in 2015 they received death threats for their "Barbie, the plastic religion", a Barbie doll dressed as the Virgin Mary. It was one of a series of Ken and Barbie dolls dressed up as transcendental figures like Jesus, the Buddha or Joan of Arc.

The Buenos Aires-based artist and teacher Diana Aisenberg says, "We're surrounded by things that could be considered provocative, and yet they're ignored and become natural. Like the violence that entails women's exclusion in all areas, even in art. There is nothing done in art that is ruder than anything on television. It's the same with abortion. Those who react always do so from a moral or religious position."

In Spain, the installation Political Prisoners by Santiago Sierra, consisting of 24 partly blurred portraits including those of Catalan independence leaders, was withdrawn from Madrid's ARCO fair before its inauguration last February. The artist previously courted censorship with pieces like his synagogue turned into gas chamber (245 metros cúbicos, 2006) and an exhibition on social exclusion in Cuba (including "Línea de 250 cm tatuada sobre 6 personas remuneradas", 1999).

There are undoubted ties between the scandals and notoriety that precede wealth and success.

In 2012, ARCO witnessed more controversy, with Eugenio Merino's Always Franco, a sculpture of General Francisco Franco inside a "Coca Cola-style" fridge. The Franco Foundation, a private entity in Spain that safeguards the late military ruler's legacy, took legal action against Merino, demanding 18,000 euros in damages for "offending the memory and honor" of Franco. It lost its case but the installation effectively disappeared from view. Again, this was not the only work by Merino cocking a snoop at emblematic figures: there is his Osama bin Laden dancing like a Bee Gee, a zombified Fidel Castro or President George W. Bush as a boxing prop.

Argentine critic and teacher Eva Grinstein says "there's a lot of political or protest art that wants to provoke" these days, as activist groups have also become more prominent. But Aisenberg believes these the putative provocations have "become mainstream."

"The fact that you still have reactions from small religious or moral groups like in the Middle Ages is their concern," says Aisenberg. "Because society approves and the market sells this."

This is confirmed by the big money later paid for works by Young British Artists, like a shark suspended in formaldehyde by Damian Hirst or Tracey Emin's "My Bed" (consisting of her unmade, dirtied bed), which people scoffed at in the 1990s. Hirst is the UK's richest artist, while My Bed sold for 4.3 million pounds at auction in 2014.

There are undoubted ties between the scandals and notoriety that precede wealth and success. In 2004, Catholics broke two of the pieces in a retrospective of the Argentine artist León Ferrari. The then Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio (who became Pope Francis) declared the show blasphemous for combining religious and erotic objects, as more 70,000 people visited. "No artist has ever had so much publicity," Ferrari said later. He renamed his damaged works "Gracias, Bergoglio".

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This focus on biological sex differences turned out to be woefully inadequate, as a group of Harvard-affiliated researchers pointed out earlier this year. By analyzing more than a year of sex-disaggregated COVID-19 data, they showed that the gender gap was more fully explained by social factors like mask-wearing and distancing behaviors (less common among men) and testing rates (higher among pregnant women and health workers, who were largely female).

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