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Art Versus Decency

the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach has opened its exhibition of the five nominees for the inaugural Rudin Prize for Emerging Photographers. The award calls on five internationally acclaimed photographers to act as a nominating panel, each selecting one emerging artist who is at the leading edge of contemporary photo-based art and has yet to have a solo show in a museum. The winner of the prize, to be selected by the museum's Photography Steering Committee and announced on December 4, will receive a cash prize of $20,000 and a solo exhibit at the Norton.

If you go to the exhibit expecting to see fine examples of photography, save for Eunice Adorno’s intimate photo essay, you will be disappointed. If you go expecting to be surprised at what is regarded as cutting edge photography, you will be quite pleased.

Adorno was nominated by Magnum photographer, Susan Meiselas. Her series of color photographs, titled “Las Mujeres Flores”, reveals the strict social traditions that define Mennonite women in northern Mexico. The work shows the craft of a photographer in control of her medium who has the facility to create a strong narrative with images. The group of photographs shows an understanding and respect for her subject.

Gabriela (Nin) Solis, also from Mexico, and Mauro D’Agati, from Palermo, Italy presented traditional photography as well. Solis’ work was black and white analog silver gelatin prints and D’Agato’s, color pigment prints. Solis was nominated by the esteemed Mexican photographer, Graciela Iturbide. Her prints were quiet pieces, many of them small, some cropped to square. They were studies of the effects of a superhighway construction project in Mexico. If the work possessed the visual strength of one of the Westons or the enigma of her nominator, we may have come away remembering it. But it did not. Her compositions have become lost in the hundreds of other images seen that day. D’Agati’s work represented a look at the underworld of Naples through the eyes of “Carmine”, but without being told, you would not know. A large collage of mugshots could have as easily been traffic violators as mafia players. The photographs lacked the intensity one might expect of the subject and as images themselves, looked like what you can find at online photo sharing websites. Both artists’ work depended on a written explanation to understand it.

I won’t even pretend to understand or explain Analia Saban’s mixed media work. The monochrome pieces involved scraping the gelatin off of silver gelatin prints and trailing it across an adjacent canvas panel.

I am certainly open-minded and I doubt anyone would call me a prude. Had I seen this selection of Sven Venø’s work at a gallery in Manhattan or San Francisco I would have reached the same conclusion and simply forgotten about it. One wall of his exhibit contained three large, realistic color photographs on aluminum, and to the right were three pedestals with running videos, each corresponding to one of the three still photographs. We were told one of the videos was eight hours long. Venø is the subject of his work, portraying different characters in much the same way as Cindy Sherman. In fact, her name was mentioned during the curator’s talk. At approximately 3x4 feet, it would hard to not notice Venø’s penis sticking out from his denim shorts. While I was not offended by the photograph, I didn’t see much point in it either. It was just a color photograph of a guy on a rope ladder with his dick hanging out. The English artist explains that his work explores the traditional roles of masculinity and that he does so by playing the part of the fool. I think most people know that a penis defines a male. This looks like exhibitionism masquerading as art.

The day after the preview and opening of the exhibit, I received an email from a fellow photographer I had seen there the night before. "Did you see the porn part of the exhibition at the Norton? After we heard the talk I walked around again...and there was a video on of a guy masturbating with an ejaculation and all..." I told her I had not seen that.

While the large still exhibitionist photograph did not offend me, the notion of the video certainly does. How does a parent explain to their child, or teenager, that a “real” man jerking off is a perverted act that should immediately be reported to the police, but a video in a museum of a man jerking off is “art”? Art that might be rewarded with a $20,000 cash prize!

A fear of perverts and pedophiles whipped up by the news media pervades the community. I have been told on numerous occasions by city security officers that I “cannot photograph children playing in Centennial Fountain.” Other photographers here tell of similar incidents in other public places.

Any discussion of obscenity involves community standards. What is appropriate for one city may not be for another. One has to wonder whether the new William & Sarah Ross Soter Curator of Photography, Tim Wride, believes the exhibit will be seen as a major coup for the museum, or whether he goes in to work every day dreading email from outraged museum goers. Perhaps the nasty bit of business is buried deeply enough in the eight-hour video that few if any will actually see it. We only hope the decision to be controversial does not cost the museum in the long run. With more great photographic art now than ever, it is surprising that the museum would exhibit something of such questionable taste and low moral standard.

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