Controversial art is valuable as a medium for conversation

For millennia, artists have poured their souls into their work, fashioning incredible (or sometimes atrocious) pieces that leave the audience stunned and breathless. However, art has more function than mere visual appeal. It is a powerful mechanism for communication – as an outlet for human expression, its impact manifested before humans could even read or write.

Art has long been used to create messages that transcend language barriers, and has often acted as a spark for meaningful conversations about the world we live in. The 1907 photograph “The Steering,” by famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz, shined a new light on the lives of the immigrants headed for Ellis Island, generating conversation about the treatment of the poor immigrants while also creating a geometrically stunning artwork.

The famous Rosie the Riveter, now a staple of pop culture and the face of women empowerment, was a call-to-action that represented women as strong and capable citizens and patriots. However, communication through art is a double edged sword.

Art can often provoke controversy; it’s message creating discomfort and shock for many who demand it be hidden away or destroyed. “La Déjeuner en fourrure,” an assemblage sculpture created by Méret Oppenheim in 1936, was so scandalous and sexual to some that a woman fainted when it was first introduced in Paris.

A more recent example of art’s controversy is a Balthus creation: “Thérèse Dreaming.” Mia Murrell, a 30 year-old New Yorker, started a petition against the painting when she saw it during a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She condemned the painting as a sexual romanticization of children and an expression of pedophilia, saying “Given the current climate around sexual assault … The Met is romanticizing voyeurism and the objectification of children.”

The 80 year old painting shows a 12 year-old girl leaning back with her leg up, revealing her underwear. Murrell’s petition, asking for the removal (but not destruction) of the painting gathered almost 10 thousand signatures in less than a week. However, some don’t find the painting offensive at all, and believe that critics are missing out on the idea of creative licence or are overreacting.

Despite the wide support of the petition, the Met refused to remove “Thérèse Dreaming,” saying that the painting is a representation of many periods, not the necessarily the one we live in.

“The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s mission is to ‘…collect, study, conserve, and present significant works of art across all times and cultures in order to connect people to creativity, knowledge, and ideas,’” said the Met’s chief communications officer, Ken Weine. “Moments such as this provide an opportunity for conversation, and visual art is one of the most significant means we have for reflecting on both the past and the present, and encouraging the continuing evolution of existing culture through informed discussion and respect for creative expression.”

The recent case reveals an underlying struggle between the audience and the artist. Should artists be able to portray their crafts, even if some find it offensive? I believe that they should. Art has the unique ability to both unite and divide, to create a conversation without a single word exchanged. Balthus’ art has a similar impact.

As New Yorker’s Judith Thurman writes, “You owe it to the art to examine the nuances of your discomfort. That’s where his genius lies.” The value of art lies in more than its surface appearance. Even if the audience doesn’t share them, art expresses opinions and gives insight into another side of the argument, allowing us to look into ourselves and judge the legitimacy of our beliefs.

It serves as a reflection of the artist as well as their society, and ultimately, leads to a reflection of ourselves. The capacity to represent unique beliefs is unbounded: it presents vast and subtle differences that result from the cultural gap in miles, decades and even among individuals.

Paintings will always represent a new perspective, even if that perspective isn’t appreciated by all. When Édouard Manet revealed “Olympia” in 1885, viewers were horrified by the naked woman and her confrontational gaze; it was called “immoral” and “vulgar,” and critics and laymen alike demanded its destruction.

Today, the painting is hailed as an artistic masterpiece, on display at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Artwork should not be censored simply because it offends a select few. It is perhaps those controversial artworks that are most valuable. As Yoko Ono once said, “Controversy is part of the nature of art and creativity. If people are not doing that, they’re not artists – they’re artesans.”