How authoritarians treat art

Somebody needs to grab Bill Donohue by the ear and drag him to the Neues Musem in Berlin — all the way to the airport, during the long transatlantic flight, and on the taxi ride to the museum. Pinch hard, too, and make him squeal all the way.

While digging a subway tunnel in Berlin, construction workers discovered a cache of buried expressionist sculptures, hidden survivors of the Nazi campaign to destroy what they considered “degenerate art”.

Researchers learned the bust was a portrait by Edwin Scharff, a nearly forgotten German modernist, from around 1920. It seemed anomalous until August, when more sculpture emerged nearby: “Standing Girl” by Otto Baum, “Dancer” by Marg Moll and the remains of a head by Otto Freundlich. Excavators also rescued another fragment, a different head, belonging to Emy Roeder’s “Pregnant Woman.” October produced yet a further batch.

The 11 sculptures proved to be survivors of Hitler’s campaign against what the Nazis notoriously called “degenerate art.” Several works, records showed, were seized from German museums in the 1930s, paraded in the fateful “Degenerate Art” show, and in a couple of cases also exploited for a 1941 Nazi film, an anti-Semitic comedy lambasting modern art. They were last known to have been stored in the depot of the Reichspropagandaministerium, which organized the “Degenerate” show.

I’ve found one small collection of photos of these works, and of the “Degenerate” show. They’re interesting, not great masterworks or anything, but it’s amazing how a touch of harsh history imbues them with much greater meaning.

Mr Donohue should contemplate how history regards people who try to dictate what art means, and that the person who is thought to have hidden these works from the hammers of the Nazis, Erhard Oewerdieck, is now considered heroic.

Smithsonian announces that art can’t be controversial

Bill Donohue is on a roll. First he bravely put up a billboard that reassures everyone that Jesus was real, which is no problem, as far as I’m concerned; it’s not true, but he isn’t interfering with other people’s right to express themselves. But now he has really done it: he has successfully pressured the National Portrait Gallery to remove an art work that Donohue did not like. That is obstructing the right of free expression, and is deplorable.

The work in question was a video about the pain of AIDS victims in Mexico, and references the Catholicism of that country by showing a crucifix with ants crawling on it. Apparently, you can make explicit movies that show Jesus getting whipped, tortured, nailed, and stabbed (Donohue loved Gibson’s Passion!), but we’ve got to draw the line at showing bugs crawling on him. Although, probably, Donohue doesn’t so much object to tormenting Jesus as he does to the implicit criticism of Catholicism, which is his true god. And perhaps also to the fact that it was part of an exhibit on sexual and gender identity, which makes all patriarchal homophobes a little queasy.

But so what? Since when do individuals or organizations get to declare what kind of art is permissible, and get national art institutions to yank out exhibits? I am unsurprised that Donohue brayed like an idiot, because that’s what he does, but I am appalled at the response from the gallery.

National Portrait Gallery Director Martin Sullivan said in a statement about the current video that Wojnarowicz’s intention was to depict the suffering of an AIDS victim. He said the museum did not intend to offend anyone.

If the museum did not intend to offend anyone, then it wasn’t doing its job. Great art is supposed to challenge the mind, and sometimes that means by necessity that it will offend. Does the National Portrait Gallery include religious art? I know it does. Then it offends atheists. Does it include works by abstract expressionists? I know it does. Then it offends all those people who will declare that they have pictures by their 3 year old on their refrigerators that look better. They’d best get rid of those bold and aggressive paintings by Picasso and replace them with something safer … say, some Thomas Kinkade originals, or perhaps a wing of Elvii painted on black velvet.

Are they going to let Bill Donohue dictate everything that they’re allowed to exhibit? And if Bill Donohue, why not me, or John Waters, or Al Goldstein? Oh, maybe because non-authoritarians are willing to allow work they dislike to stand, unlike wretched bluenoses like Bill Donohue.

You know what’s really sweet about this, though? Donohue’s protest got one obscure exhibit pulled from one art gallery, and now it’s going to blossom on a thousand web sites and millions of people will see it. Quite the triumph, Billy!

The NSFW problem

Roger Ebert has a thoughtful post on the problem of not-safe-for-work images. It’s a real problem, and it’s a curious example of self-imposed censorship built on an artificial fear. I don’t care who you are, you’ve all seen pornography, you’ve all heard profanity, yet somehow, if even a tasteful nude or an obscenity neatly typed in a small font face appears in a web post, people freak out: I could have viewed that in my workplace! My eyes aren’t allowed to see a breast or a penis between the hours of 9 to 5!

There’s good reason for that, of course, and Ebert discusses some of it.

I haven’t worked in an office for awhile. Is there a danger of porn surfing in the workplace? Somehow I doubt it. There is a greater danger, perhaps, of singling out workers for punishment based on the zeal of the enforcers. And of course there is always this: Supervisors of employee web use, like all employees, must be seen performing their jobs in order to keep them.

There is also this: Perfectly reasonable people, well-adjusted in every respect, might justifiably object to an erotic photograph on the computer monitor of a coworker. A degree of aggression might be sensed. It violates the decorum of the workplace. (So does online gaming, but never mind.) You have the right to look at anything on your computer that can be legally looked at, but give me a break! I don’t want to know! I also understand that the threat of discipline or dismissal is real and frightening.

I’ve made it through two years on the blog with only this single NSFW incident. In the future I will avoid NSFW content in general, and label it when appropriate. What a long way around I’ve taken to say I apologize.

I think he misses a couple, though.

One is the one-sided nature of most erotic images that makes a workplace situation more difficult for those who are already struggling: women. Ebert himself does this, since his examples are all of lovely naked women. Why not naked men? Ebert is a male, he clearly enjoys the female form, but if he’d used examples of erotic male nudes, there’d be a little more distancing from the subject, a little more objectivity. I like looking at naked women, it tingles my hypothalamus in interesting ways; I don’t object to pictures of naked men, but I’m afraid there is no thrill here, not even a sense of forbidden, hidden fear. It’s easier for a male to dismiss images of women as simply beautiful and non-threatening, because he isn’t likely to be the target of objectification and lust, which actually are inappropriate in a working environment where women want to be treated as equals.

Avoiding even the appearance of discrimination is reason enough to avoid these loaded images, but there’s also a more universal reason that we have this problem, and it’s unfortunate. It’s the tyranny of the ideal, and it also is on display in Ebert’s post.

Whenever we talk about sexualized images and their virtues as simply representations of beauty, we always trot out examples from art of nubile young men and women in the prime of health, typically slender and unwrinkled and unburdened with any trace of experience. This is what we are supposed to look like, is the message, beauty is in this smoothness, these unmarred curves, this hidden youthful suppleness exposed. What we will regard as beauty in our bodies is such a narrow band of reality that it means that very few of us actually have a positive self-image, and not only every porn image, but every ad on billboards and television, reinforces that message that you aren’t worthy.

And of course it’s made worse for women, because the standard image of women is that ideal of young and fertile and lubricious. Are you pretty enough to be on a billboard? If not, there’s something wrong with you. Even as a man I can feel this, since no one is going to mistake me for a 20 year old Adonis, but at least I’m mostly spared the optic cacophony constantly reminding me that my body is homely and sub-standard.

But it’s not, not really. Everyone has bodies that serve them well, that carry them through life and give them pleasure and work hard, but somehow we’ve fallen into the trap of idealizing such a specific set of features that we spend most of our lives lacking the proper appreciation of them, in part due to the way the advertising and pornography industries work to promote a standard and punish anything outside that standard with neglect. This is another reason to avoid “NSFW” images — not because they’re unsafe for our eyes, an absurd concept already, but because we need to rebel against the homogenization of beauty.

Here’s a counter-example. When we talk about erotic images of bodies, we all know exactly what we’re talking about, and it isn’t my body or even the bodies of most of the readers of this article. If I posted an image of my kind of body (or, probably, your kind of body) it would be as an object of derision, something that people would mock because it’s not perfect enough, not pretty enough, or just plain ugly. I know; I posted one photo of my breast on facebook*, and got a flood of email that can be summarized as “ooh, yuck”.

Why can’t we treat bodies like we do hands? Look at this; this is not a youthful hand, it’s not an unlined hand, it’s not a smooth and perfect hand…but it’s beautiful.


We can look at a baby’s hand, a young woman’s hand, or a gnarled old man’s hand and see loveliness and function everywhere, and respect the evidence of lives lived well. We’ve been acculturated by the tyranny of a narrow ideal to only be able to approve of bodies that fall into a tiny category that we can call ‘fuckable’. Outside of the art world, you simply don’t find images of bodies that are not airbrushed and photoshopped and selected for that kind of exclusively sexualized purpose.

It’s very easy to make a case for tolerance of images of beautiful people in a state of undress. I’ll believe we’re ready to be liberal about the use of what we call NSFW imagery when the case can be made for the beauty of a naked old man without a volley of derision and expressions of disgust and disappointment because they’re not a slim naked young woman.

*There was a good reason: it was to protest facebook’s policy of censoring photos of women breastfeeding their babies. While it’s embarrassing to be mocked for the fact that I don’t have a sculpted, youthful figure, it was worth it to point out the hypocrisy of a ridiculous policy. Consider it another act of sacrilege, and that I did a fabulous job of defiling most people’s ideal of what a breast should look like.

Fancy that, a fabulous map

This is beautiful, I’d hang it on my wall. It’s a genetic map of the first synthetic organism, and it and many others will be on display in the Serpentine Gallery in London this weekend.


And gosh, what do you know, I am going to be in London this weekend! I may have to sneak out of The Amazing Meeting a bit, which is going to be hard to do since it’s so jam-packed with cool people and cool stuff, but some of them might want to join me in a little extracurricular travel as well.

Radial tree of life

I use a very pretty radial tree of life diagram fairly often — the last time was in my talk on Friday — and every time I do, people ask where I got it. Here it is: it’s from the David Hillis lab, with this description:


This file can be printed as a wall poster. Printing at least 54″ wide is recommended.
(If you would prefer a simplified version with common names, please see below.)
Blueprint shops and other places with large format printers can print this file for you.
You are welcome to use it for non-commercial educational purposes.
Please cite the source as David M. Hillis, Derrick Zwickl, and Robin Gutell, University of Texas.
About this Tree: This tree is from an analysis of small subunit rRNA sequences sampled
from about 3,000 species from throughout the Tree of Life. The species were chosen based
on their availability, but we attempted to include most of the major groups, sampled
very roughly in proportion to the number of known species in each group (although many
groups remain over- or under-represented). The number of species
represented is approximately the square-root of the number of species thought to exist on Earth
(i.e., three thousand out of an estimated nine million species), or about 0.18% of the 1.7 million
species that have been formally described and named. This tree has been used
in many museum displays and other educational exhibits, and its use for educational purposes
is welcomed.

There’s also a simplified version:


Both of those are available as scalable pdfs, so you can zoom in and out to get just the right view, which is very handy.