Is it appropriate? Quality vs. censorship at Open Studio Night
Warning: Please proceed with the knowledge that this article includes content dealing with nudity, and makes repeated references to a man’s genitalia.
On Oct. 29, SCAD Atlanta hosted Open Studio Night, an annual art exhibition widely recognized as the university’s largest event. Open Studio showcases the work of SCAD students, alumni and faculty, whose paintings, illustrations, photographs and printmaking projects are available for purchase by the greater Atlanta community.
The event is one night only and SCAD makes an effort to publicize the event and create a fun atmosphere. The entire fifth floor is transformed into a gallery space where demonstrations, installations and live music are in abundance. Family, friends, and art enthusiasts abound, while board members roam the halls next to prospective students. This is the work that represents SCAD, and close to 1500 people attended. It’s a big deal.
So when a frontal male nude photograph was removed just prior to the opening, and a student protest ensued during Open Studio as a result, many people at SCAD Atlanta were not pleased. The photograph in question belonged to Nicole Craine, a fourth year photography student with a minor in printmaking. Craine’s black and white untitled piece depicts a man in a seated position, his arms resting in his lap, while cradling his genitalia. The photograph is cropped so the man’s identity remains anonymous. The man is not shown to be doing anything — that is, he is not performing any act. He is naked, seated against a black background, cupping his scrotum.
Students upset by the removal of Craine’s piece entered the event space with posters of the photograph affixed to their clothing. The word “censored” was printed across the poster, concealing the man’s penis, and the students handed out flyers encouraging attendees to visit a blog created as a response to the photograph removal, Censored by SCAD.
The varying points of view
The Censored by SCAD blog, maintained by anonymous authors, states that the removal of Craine’s piece is in direct contradiction to SCAD’s mission, vision and values, saying, “we came to this school to learn about art and thrive in a ‘positively oriented university environment,’ that allows us to push boundaries.” The authors say that SCAD students must “mitigate their work” in order for it to be acknowledged by the university.
Dr. Teresa Griffis, associate vice president at SCAD Atlanta, is sensitive to students’ outlook, but stands by the decision to remove Craine’s piece, which she made in consensus with the dean of fine arts, Brett Osborn. She hopes that this experience can be a teachable moment for everyone. “The photo was not appropriate for that exhibition, for a community open house with children in attendance,” she said.
“All student work, regardless of skill or subject matter, is never forbidden from being placed in the classroom,” Dr. Griffis continued, “and when it comes to public viewing, yes, the work is juried as it would be by a curator or gallery owner.”
But her work was juried by the photography faculty, Craine said, which is why it was selected for Open Studio in the first place. “I was told it was a unanimous vote,” she added. But the day before opening night, she received an email from the photo lab staff, telling her where to pick up her piece. “Don’t tell me it’s an issue of quality,” Craine smiled with a raised eyebrow, “it’s censorship.”
The removed photo is one of a series of 20 male nudes, “each more playful than the other,” Craine described. One of the less “playful” pieces remained on display at Open Studio, showing the back of a male model, arms outstretched, buttocks in full view. The question that many people have in viewing Craine’s pieces is why the male nudity? What is she trying to say? Perhaps it’s a testament to our standardized expectations as art viewers that we even have to ask, given that there were multiple pieces depicting female nudes, albeit in a less intrusive manner.
Inspired by the ever-changing relationship between the person doing the photographing and the one being photographed, Craine believes that now is the time for women to show their perspective on the male body. “When people look at the penis, different types of conversations happen. Women step towards the photo, men step back. I’m challenging this issue of appropriateness.”
She’s not the only one. The Women’s Caucus for Art, proponents of female artists since the 1970s, recently accepted Craine’s male nude series in their pending exhibition “Man as Object: Reversing the Gaze.” According to the WCA website, they hope to accomplish several things by displaying work that shows the “male [as] the spectacle for a woman’s enjoyment or mere viewing.”
WCA states in their call for entries, that they hope to push the male viewer to “turn the mirror on himself” and feel what most women have felt historically, seeing men’s depiction of female nudes: that sense of “powerlessness of being owned or submissive.” Based on the reaction to Craine’s piece by SCAD administration, Open Studio Night is not the place to have that kind of conversation.
“We provide other venues where edgier work is welcome, at no charge to the students,” Dr. Griffis said. “Just because it wasn’t presented doesn’t mean we’re saying not to show it. Know your market.” She is referring to Studioplex, a small venue near Inman Park where SCAD students can display their work without regard to content.
In an email response to requests for an interview, Dean Osborn offered his position:
“…Foundation Studies Professor Larry Anderson and I developed a relationship with a real estate broker who supports the arts and has allowed SCAD to exhibit at his space Studioplex. This exhibition space has provided students with a venue to show work that may not be appropriate for the general public. Many of SCAD Atlanta’s strongest exhibitions in the past five years have been exhibited at alternative spaces such as Studioplex. Students are encouraged to utilize this opportunity and seek out their own venues to show work. Quality has always been foremost in the selection process for all SCAD sponsored exhibitions. This benefits all of SCAD’s students.”
Craine appreciates the existence of the space at Studioplex, but counters that it’s not the same thing. “There’s a difference in having your work displayed in the presence of 1500 people, at an event that was publicized, pushed to the public — as opposed to something you do yourself where maybe 50 of your friends show up for the free wine.”
Craine doesn’t buy the notion of protecting the general public from potentially offensive pieces of work. “At MOMA, you’ll see work that’s controversial, and students kindergarten through college go through everyday.” She went on, “Why do you have to go to New York or Los Angeles to see art that provokes you? Any serious art institution that is set up to educate should want to have this conversation. We’re the biggest art school in the Southeast with an opportunity to speak to a huge body of people. This is where the conversation begins.”
If this continues, she said, referencing the decision to remove work that makes people uncomfortable, “we’re recreating the problem.”
Looking towards the future
And that problem, of determining what makes art Art, and deciding when that art is appropriate, and explaining what that should mean for the rest of us, is no new issue. It’s as old as art itself, and it’s not going away, as we’ve seen recently at the Smithsonian Institute. And although both SCAD students and administration have reasonable points of view, they are not likely to reach the same conclusion about what should have happened at Open Studio Night. But what’s done is done. So then. What happens now?
Craine says she’s been in ongoing communication with Art Malloy, dean of student success, as well as with various photography faculty, on how controversial, but juried work can be integrated into large events like Open Studio without removing it all together. One suggestion has been to create a separate room in the same space with a posted disclaimer, but as of this article’s publication nothing to this effect has been finalized.
If such a seachange happens at SCAD Atlanta, Craine won’t be here to see the shift – she’s set to receive her undergraduate degree in the spring, and is actively researching graduate programs to continue her study of photography. Craine also says that graduate program directors at schools like Parsons and the School of Visual Arts have identified the photo that was removed at Open Studio Night as one of her strongest pieces.
It just goes to show, Craine said, “some of the powers that be may not support this kind of work publicly, but it’s coming. Actually, it’s here.”