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Art and Scandal in the Modern Period


Module description

Ever since the emergence of the avant-garde in the second half of the nineteenth-century, art and controversy - not to say, scandal - have often gone hand in hand. This new, wide-ranging and thought-provoking course will examine the complex reasons for this phenomenon, and in so doing also grapple with the important issues of freedom of expression, blasphemy, censorship and taboo. As will become evident, sex, religion, politics, morality and money - either by themselves, or in combination - lie at the heart of most of these controversies - as does the power of modern art to challenge and subvert the social and aesthetic status quo.

We will consider the significance of landmark exhibitions, starting with the Paris Salon des Refusés of 1863. Other exhibitions to be studied will include the First Impressionist Exhibition of 1874, the 1905 Salon d’Automne, the New York Armory Show of 1913, the Entartete Kunst Exhibition of 1937, the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1938, as well as more recent ones, such as Sensation, first held at the Royal Academy, London in 1997 and Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art, shown at the Jewish Museum, New York in 2002.

Court cases in which legal proceedings have been brought against artists will be another focus of enquiry. These will include the famous 1878 case between James McNeill Whistler and John Ruskin; Egon Schiele’s imprisonment for obscenity in 1912; the case brought by US Customs in 1926 against Constantin Brancusi’s Bird in Space, and the one brought against the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati in 1990 for exhibiting the work of Robert Mapplethorpe. The implications of the US Flag Desecration Law of 1968 for artists protesting against the Vietnam War will be another object of study.

We will also analyse the controversy provoked by certain individual works of art: among them C.R.W. Nevinson’s Paths of Glory (1917); Diego Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads (Rockefeller Center, New York, 1933); Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (the notorious 'Bricks') of 1966; Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (1973-9); Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982); Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987); Peter Howson’s Croatian and Muslim (1994); and key works by YBAs Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and the Chapman brothers.