to be or not to be…offended by art?

this semester, i’m taking a required course called “issues and images in contemporary art.” i knew as soon as i saw the title that it would be a class filled with heated discussion and conflicting viewpoints and opinions. and it is. as i said on facebook and twitter during the break of my first class, i’m not sure if the people in my class are way smarter or way more pretentious than i am.

why can’t i just appreciate art for its aesthetics and not have to read so deeply into it? i don’t like ripping apart a piece of art until i can’t appreciate its beauty anymore. i like the feeling i get when i first see a work for the first time. i like to appreciate that part the most.

anyway, the interesting thing is a question one of the professors (there are two for this class) posed to us. we were looking at some paintings by john currin, which were a complete turnaround from his previous work. DON’T click on the link if you are easily offended. this brings me to the point of the post. the professor asked us how many of us were offended by the images he showed us. no one raised a hand. then he posed this question to us: how many of us are saying we’re not offended because we want so badly to *not* be offended? how many of us aren’t offended because we’re artists, and we’re not *supposed* to be shocked or offended by images we see? we see some pretty gruesome things on an everyday basis, right? we’re offended by things in the news and things we see on the street. but when it comes to art, anything goes, right?

that was the most interesting thing i’ve heard in a while. i had to ask myself how i actually felt. when i looked deeper, i found that i actually was not offended at all. unless something downright mean is said about me or my husband (or some close friends or family), i don’t get offended easily. it’s true. i think a lot of things i see are ridiculous (such as the amount of butt cheeks i’ve seen on campus this week under the shorty shorts girls are wearing lately), but i’m not offended by them.

john currin, the artist we were viewing at the time, changed his style completely. his recent works were inspired by danish pornography. yes, they are pornographic images. but they’re painted in an almost renaissance style. to me, the contrast is amusing. renaissance painters painted nudes all the time. but they were presented in a much more intimate way. currin’s paintings are full-on, like i said, pornographic. when we came back from our break, we studied an interesting contrast among three paintings to get an initial reaction.

***note: i debated whether to post the images of the following paintings because of their natures. it was a hard decision to make, since some people may actually be offended by the images, and a lot of my family members read my blog… i’m going to post the first two, but not the last, since currin’s works are actually modeled on pornography. as long as you don’t mind renaissance or impressionist nudes, then you’re fine to proceed from here.***

the first painting we viewed, pictured below, was italian painter titian’s venus of urbino (1538). it’s a painting i’ve seen many times in art history and other classes.  something that i like to point out is that the venus of urbino was actually based on the painter giorgione’s sleeping venus. it was completed by titian after giorgione’s death. mark twain actually wrote about this painting after seeing it in the uffizi gallery in florence. he was highly offended, not by the subject matter or the fact that it was a nude, but by the placement of the hand (is the hand placed there for modesty or for some other reason?). but most of us will look at this painting and think, “this is a renaissance painting. it looks real, and it looks beautiful.”

the second painting presented to us was edouard manet’s olympia (1863). not a surprise, as it is usually studied, compared, and contrasted with titian’s venus. it’s a bit more confrontational, as the woman (a prostitute) sits up and looks directly at the viewer. her posture is comfortable, confident, and open, whereas the venus or urbino’s posture is more coy and demure. note, however, that both have their legs crossed, and that the vital parts are not visible. the shocking thing about olympia, when it was first painted, was that there are several items in the painting that clearly identify the subject as a prostitute. notice the difference in hand placement and the tension there. olympia’s hand seems fiercely protective. the venus of urbino’s hand seems more delicate and demure in its protection. there are lots of symbolic items here. google or wiki them if you want to. it’s very interesting.

on to the next:  john currin, contemporary artist (born in colorado, raised in connecticut). his painting anniversary nude (2008) was the third we saw in this part of the lecture. it was kind of like, “oh. okay. well, that’s different.” it’s not that i was offended, but yeah, i was a little shocked. the obviousness and provocative nature of the painting is divergent…yet still similar to the first two. think about it: society today is largely about sex. “sex sells.” and it’s true. sex is present in some form everywhere we look. the openness, the extreme provocative nature of the subject…it’s like she’s just putting it out there for all to see. there’s no sense of modesty or decorum whatsoever. is this bad? is it the objectification of women? or is it empowering?

are you shocked?

are you offended?

if you aren’t, is it because you don’t think you’re supposed to be shocked in this day and age?

i still can’t decide. even if i’m not good at reading a work of art the way some people can, i love the way art makes me think and ponder.

what do you think?

***ETA: the previous link for anniversary nude did not show the full painting. the new link will.***



  1. Ohhh I would love to take that class. How much fun.
    I love John Currin’s works. I’m not offended and I think it is beautiful… but then my work tends to be seen as offensive so I’m not sure that my idea of offensive is align with the general consensus.

  2. ok, third try….hope this works this time!

    i’m glad the first reply didn’t go through after all…i didn’t see the entire anniversary nude painting with your first link and that changes my opinions.

    having not seen the entire anniversary nude painting, i didn’t see much difference between that one and the first two you posted. from the view i got, while the subject wasn’t covering her lady business like the first two, you couldn’t see the business so while it was a bit more provocative than the first two it wasn’t really offensive.

    something i did notice about the anniversary nude was how closer to the viewer it is, with less background distraction, making it more provocative to me. in the first two the other people and objects seem like (to me) they could be there to give the viewer something other than naked lady to look at, although that is front and center.

    then i followed your second link and saw that the anniversary nude does, in fact, show the lady business. definitely more provocative than the first two.

    what i’m wrestling with in my mind is what makes the currin paintings different from the first two.

    i don’t think that currin’s nude paintings are any less pornographic and inappropriate for public consumption than the photos/magazines he based them on, simply because they were done in paint and aren’t the actual people. to me, what is depicted sullies something that should be sacred. they aren’t doing any more than trying to titillate, but to me it’s in a dirty way. (i looked at all of them at your first link)

    but this is where my confusion comes in–because what was the reaction from people with the first two paintings during their times? i’d think a painting of a prostitute (in any state of dress or undress) would be considered scandalous. did it matter that only the breasts were shown?

    it makes me wonder why i feel like the first two aren’t necessarily pornographic, when they well may have been perceived that way in their time (and it’s been 10 years or so since i took art history so i don’t remember what those reactions were). maybe because i feel like they tell a story rather than just trying to provoke. i’m not really a fan of modern art, either, so that could have something to do with it.

    i still come from the point of view that the new currin paintings are nothing more than pornography, and i don’t feel like that has a place in the public. i don’t like that such things are becoming more and more common place, less of a big deal because for me, it is a big deal. and it’s an even bigger deal to me now raising a son.

    i’m sure, though, that the galleries showing his work give warning and take care that no one sees them unwillingly. i’m not about to protest his work, but i wouldn’t support it, either. and that’s just me.

  3. commenting a bit late here but as I read Mark Twain, he is offended by the fact that in painting or sculpture you could (at that time) “get away with” showing sexuality while if he wrote about what that left hand might or might not be “doing” it would cause an uproar. It was the inconsistency that offended him.

    Speaking for myself, the Currin painting is, like Candace said, more provocative and therefore brings a stronger reaction than the other two.

    just my thoughts.

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