The Banality of Censorship

What is a valid reason for a museum to cancel an exhibition? Last Thursday, a panel at Oslo Kunsthandel debated a recent censoring of artist Ole Jørgen Ness.

Ole Jørgen Ness, Perpetual Elegy, 2017 (detail). Photo: Oslo Kunsthandel.

One month before the Norwegian artist Ole Jørgen Ness was supposed to exhibit his work Perpetual Elegy at Museum De Reede in Antwerp, the show was cancelled. Apparently, the management feared for the museum’s reputation and did not want to expose its juvenile visitors to the work’s potentially provocative nudity. This is why the monumental 2 x 17 metre drawing, displaying a dense ornamental arrangement of human figures – most of them women, either naked or in sexualized attire – is now being shown at Oslo Kunsthandel. In conjunction with the exhibition, Oslo Kunsthandel hosted a panel debate on the topic Is the art space becoming narrower?

Besides Ole Jørgen Ness, the panel comprised Knut Ljøgodt, art historian and former director of Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum; Ina Johannesen, director of Ekebergparken; and Lars Toft Eriksen, curator at the Munch Museum. Each participant had a distinct point of view on the topic.

Ole Jørgen Ness, Perpetual Elegy, 2017 (detail). Photo: Oslo Kunsthandel.

Ness tried to be understanding about the decision De Reede made, as he pointed out cultural differences between Norway and Belgium, but his frustration was tangible. He cannot and does not want to limit himself in his artistic expression – “cannot”, because he has no control over his “visual Tourette’s”. He expects this freedom to be respected by others. Looking at social media culture, he identified a “mob mentality” and an instrumental exploitation of art through various actors. “Will we have to put up warning signs now in every exhibition?” he cried out. He wished for educated visitors who are able to “read” a picture and identify its references.

Of all the panelists, Ina Johannesen took the most pragmatic position. She assumed that the Museum De Reede was simply too young and unprepared to find a better solution to the matter. In her position as director of Ekebergparken, she does not make any specific demands upon invited artists. However, there needs to be an awareness of potential conflicts regarding the exhibition of a work in the public space of the park. One needs to know what to expect from an artist beforehand. Good communication is crucial in this regard. Considerations such as these have nothing to do with censorship. It is simply that not every art work is suited for every situation, space and context.

Knut Ljøgodt historicized the debate’s topic as he pointed out the provocative appeal of ancient art works displaying hermaphrodites, which were kept in secret cabinets at the Vatican during the Renaissance; the imagery of symbolism and decadence in the late 19th century as well as the restrictions Robert Mapplethorpe faced with his photographs of homosexual motifs. In terms of the present situation, he detects a new puritanism on the rise where practices of confinement and censorship become institutionalized and where museums give in to public pressure stirred by forms of online activism. On a positive note, Ljøgodt emphasized the provocative potential of art as an opportunity for art institutions like De Reede to assert themselves. All that is needed is the courage to take chances.

Ole Jørgen Ness, Perpetual Elegy, 2017 (detail). Photo: Oslo Kunsthandel.

Lars Toft Eriksen challenged Ljøgodt’s theory about a new puritanism. The art space has not become narrower. Quite the opposite, it has become vastly expanded, due to the transformed media landscape of the digital. Art reaches out to much bigger and more diverse audiences. Therefore, art is increasingly scrutinized in public discourse. The positive challenge for art institutions is to mediate between artists and their works and the new digital public. Ultimately, there is no such thing as freedom of expression, not in the sense of an ahistorical and metaphysical entity. What art is and what it can and cannot display is always in the process of negotiation in the social sphere.

Also invited to witness and participate in the event was the owner of De Reede, Harry Rutten. It was peculiar at best to exclude him from the debate by talking Norwegian for the most part. Only when a question was directly addressed to Rutten, the conversation switched to English. This was also when the debate heated up. Ness and Ljøgodt implied an underlying conservatism and commercial sellout in De Reede’s rejection of Ness’s work. Rutten defended the decision. In his version of the story, the reasons for not allowing Ness to exhibit his work were of a banal and pragmatic nature. The museum had not existed for half a year, and four of the newly appointed board members expressed concern that Perpetual Elegy might steer the museum’s profile in the wrong direction. It was obvious that Ness was not satisfied with Rutten’s argument, yet at the end he gave original paper works to each panelist and the delegation from Antwerp. Ironically, Ness’s art, which had caused the dispute in the first place, now functioned as a gesture of appeasement.

Anders Elvestad, Ole Jørgen Ness, Ina Johannesen, Knut Ljøgodt and Lars Toft Eriksen. Photo: Oslo Kunsthandel.