The following article first featured in August 2004’s issue 12 of ‘Prospect NW’, the monthly magazine for RIBA NW, published by the Carnyx Group. The features were part of a monthly series of ‘introductions to public art’ written by Ian Banks, the (then) Public Art & Architecture Officer for Arts Council England NW. Ian produced a total of 24 articles for Prospect NW, spanning from May 2003 to December 2005. Content varied according to artform and whatever pertinent public art news was current at that time. All 24 Prospect NW articles are available as a free pdf download off the self-publishing platform Lulu.
This article discussed the issues around the use of nudity in public art and notions of taboo and public decency. A more recent re-visit of that subject matter can also be seen in a recent blog article Beyond Thinking.
Full Frontal – Taboo and censorship issues as art goes pubic in Liverpool
The city of Florence staged a 500th birthday party this September for it’s most famous son – Michelangelo’s huge nude statue of David – and unsurprisingly, though 110,000 people trouped past it, there were no demonstrations over public decency or calls for a strategic fig leaf. Sorry that this should be the second time in a year that I have referred to this ancient work (the first being my February article exploring figurative sculpture), but it seems strangely apt given the media-led debate of “Is it Art?” now raging in Liverpool, following Yoko Ono’s installations of her ‘My Mummy was Beautiful’ series. Her work features a naked maternal breast and crotch displayed city-wide on giant banners, shopping bags and badges – all part of the International 04 strand of Liverpool Biennial.
Though no Michelangelo, Ono – widow of Liverpool’s favourite son John Lennon – is still nevertheless one of the world’s most original performance and installation artists, and viewed by many as one of the founders of conceptual art. Her homage to motherhood and Liverpool is a variation on past works. She states: “This work was initially about my mother. But when I decided to do it in Liverpool, suddenly I remembered how John loved his mother, and it choked me up…. I think it will look very beautiful spread over this highly energised, beautiful city.”
In line with many others in a BBC-NW poll, the work was described as “offensive” by Julia Baird, Lennon’s half-sister, who complained it was disrespectful to her dead mother – killed in a car accident when Lennon was 18. She had urged festival organisers to remove the work, particularly the one on St Luke’s Church. Initially, the trustees of the war-damaged church – and soon to be new Peace Centre – had wanted to mark this transition by specifically displaying Ono’s work – she being one of the world’s most prominent peace activists after all. As it transpires, the offending banner has now actually been taken down early – though only to replace an identical one torn down at the Bluecoat – there conveniently being no spares or money for a replacement! To clarify, Liverpool Biennial chief executive Lewis Biggs, confirmed that though he had no wish to offend anybody, in normal circumstances all the works would have remained in place until the end of the festival. He stated that the installations were well received by a great many people: “provoking thoughts of their relationships with their own mothers.”
It seems ironic that a display of such tame nudity (with only an oblique sexual reference) in public art can cause such a sensation, whereas the gratuitous obscenity seen daily in the public domain by way of advertising, media and internet is often overlooked. Indeed, why should that other public displays of asexual nudity – such as seen in Spencer Tunick’s current photography at the Hales Gallery (capturing hundreds of volunteer nudes in orchestrated mass poses), and in professional streaker, Mark Robert’s populist exhibitionism (streaking 380 times worldwide, including the 2004 Superbowl and Embassy World Snooker Finals) – be tolerated as an essentially harmless eccentricity? One supposes the key issue is whether sexual exploitation or degradation is sensed, and perhaps more critically, whether serious numbers of formal complaints are lodged: as demonstrated in the infamous Sophie Dahl / Opium perfume advertisement withdrawn by the Advertising Standards Authority in 2000 because it was deemed “degrading to women and offensive”.
With regards the Ono debate, one wonders if there is actually an unconscious local agenda of unforgiveness at play here – for example, if the work had been created by any other artist, would such a furore ever have developed? In her complimentary installation within Tate Liverpool, Ono has placed an interactive panel for visitors to pen their own eulogies to their mother, and one entry stands out ominously: “my mother didn’t break up the Beatles – you did!”
If a scaled up David, along with explicit genitalia, can stand in the Palazzo della Signoria for 375 years, followed by 125 years in the Accademia Museum without causing offence, then what does this say of our continued British reserve and hypocrisy – particularly in a city moving towards its own 800th anniversary in 2007 and becoming European Capital of Culture a year later? David was intended to symbolise the city’s liberty, and ”As David defended his people, Michelangelo said, so those who govern Florence must justly defend her.” Similarly, one hopes that someone remains at hand in Liverpool to defend the liberty of artists to express themselves publicly within reason but without further censor.