In Defense of Difficult Art

September 9, 2006

Some may say I’ve got it easy.  As a photographer, one of my main subjects is dance — beautiful swirls of energy and passion that most people find graceful and uplifting.  Rarely does that subject offend.  My fish portraits — photographs of dead fish on ice at local fish markets — can bring a more squeamish reaction.  Some viewers turn away, to avoid experiencing these images that I found so visually exciting.  But none of my work has been subject to such condemnation as the paintings of Thomas W. Manning, shown until recently at USM.

Art is not always beautiful, comfortable, easy to experience, or simple to understand.  Artists may take on difficult topics, produce disturbing images, probe the failures of our social order, highlight the erotic in ways that offend some, or graphically depict the violence or deprivation that some of us may wish were hidden.

Indeed, some exhibit spaces have asked me not to display any nudes, or any fish portraits, or any homeless people, or even anything that might be disturbing.  Artists are asked to contribute to the “creative economy”, but not in ways that might be unsettling.

But the uproar over the Thomas Manning exhibit has raised this reaction to a new and frightening level.  A recent editorial in the Press Herald asks that we judge the moral character and behavior of the artist before even looking at the art.  “When a tax-funded institution of higher education exhibits art created by a man convicted of murdering a policeman, that’s more than ‘cutting edge’… When the hand that wields the brush is covered in blood, it indelibly stains whatever it touches.”

According to this editorial, “It’s almost meaningless to ask whether Manning’s work meets objective standards of artistic merit.”  Evidently Manning’s past actions, and his statement that he is portraying “political prisoners”, should be reason for us to close our eyes and not experience the message his art portrays.

What a remarkably shortsighted view!  I’d encourage everybody to take a more careful look at what this artist is saying, what truth it might represent, what visual appeal or expressive power the work may possess.  Or … I wish I could.  I didn’t make it to the USM gallery in time, and now the University has relented to conservative pressure and taken the show down.  Now the work is much less accessible.

We don’t dismiss out of hand the artistic work of slave holders, or Nazi’s during the 2nd world war, or other artists whose views or other behavior many of us would judge harshly. Why this sudden rush to judgement — without even a look a the work itself?

Hanging the work of Thomas Manning was not an endorsement of his views or of his past behavior.  It was an affirmation that at least one curator thought there was something of value in his art, and that we should have a chance to see it.  What a shame that this chance has been denied.

I wish that USM could have simply issued a clear and strong statement reiterating their condemnation of Mannings past actions, and the fact that the messages in the exhibit are HIS messages, and not those of USM.  Let the USM students who view the show, and other visitors, decide for themselves what to make of the art and of the social history that led to its creation.  A university should be fostering dialog — not removing access to the primary source materials that can inform that dialog.

Portland wants to foster its “creative economy”.  Of course, that requires creating more housing and work space for artists, more spaces for exhibit and performance, strengthening the already solid arts programs at USM and at the Maine College of Art.  But it also requires educating a community that the response to art we don’t like, or to art by artists that we don’t like is not to have the exhibits taken down.  I thought USM already knew this.

This was written as a column for the Portland Press Herald.   The show was taken down at the request of USM’s president.