Tuesday, March 9, 2010

For the Children?

In this post I present a few points for consideration:
  1. Briefly touch on the questions voiced about the artists' ability and quality of the piece in question.
  2. The agreement to veil the piece and why this wasn't considered adequate protection for children.
  3. Call attention to the parental responsibility and question if it is necessary to censor so parents are relieved of their responsibility in educating and protecting their children.
  4. And lastly, compare this piece with a piece in last year's exhibit.

Since the controversy on this piece began I have been challenging myself to identify the root of my unrest. The different perspectives from which I could view this controversy left me perplexed and I had to take time to genuinely reflect on each one. This issue isn’t simple, in fact it is so complex that in the discussion surrounding it there are many rabbit trails to peruse. In the interest of full disclosure, here are the various angles from which I approach this topic.
  • Former curator.
  • Former gallery board member (I resigned 2 weeks ago).
  • Church member.
  • Participating artist in this show.
  • Mother of 5 children, ages 2 months to 11 years.
  • Friend of the family of the young artist.
  • Family of 4 “crowd” members in the photo, including the girl in the blue dress.
There are, of course, other lenses through which I view the piece itself (apart from the controversy) that are more personal in nature including, but not limited to, my own history with abuse and interaction with law enforcement (which has been very positive).

When I learned of the concept of the piece some time ago I never questioned the appropriateness of the proposed content. There was never, in my mind, a divorce from the intended purpose of the project in depicting one of the Stations of the Cross. Perhaps if I had not originally been aware and experienced with this particular show red flags would have been raised in my consciousness but I only understood the photo within the context of the Stations of the Cross exhibit, and as such I saw no problem. If I had considered it too inflammatory or potentially traumatizing I would not have hesitated to bring the details of this piece to the attention of the gallery board of directors.

Since it has been stated by those that made the decision to not allow the showing of this work in Xnihilo Gallery that there is no question about Jackson’s talent and that this is an impressive work of art, I will only touch on the idea that this is something other than just that. The argument, that has threaded through many comments in the various venues, that this subject matter is too complex for a 10 year old to conceptualize and that the quality of the skill demonstrated in the composition of the piece are too advanced for one so young are not the actual points of dissension. It is simple, really: a young child, say 3 or 4 years old, does not understand what a Roman guard is in the retelling of the story of Christ’s sacrifice and in an attempt to help the child comprehend, the story teller, which we hope is the parent but could be a children’s ministry volunteer, explains that it is the law enforcement of Bible times and is like a police officer. Within the context of that moment nobody is making any kind of polarized statement regarding law enforcement but merely drawing a parallel to something a young child could understand. When presented with the opportunity to depict said scene in a modern setting, a child, of most any age, would not see the potential controversy of applying this comparable figure. As for the technical skill required to execute this image, a young, talented child exposed to specific skills from an early age due to a talented and skilled parent sometimes exhibits ability beyond their years. This isn’t that unusual. The fact that a parent would invest their time in a child so young in sharing their skill and talent is laudable. It is not outside the range of reason that the son of a skilled and talented photographer who takes the time to impart his knowledge and experience would have the capability at 10 years old to construct an impressive piece of art demonstrating the skill associated with more mature artists. These points have nothing to do with the photograph not being included in the show, however.

The ruling to not permit the piece to hang in the gallery, outside of the evening of the artists’ reception, was an attempt to protect the impressionable minds of young children that could be frightened by the image of a police officer, a presumed safe protective authority figure, beating a young child. Deemed too graphic for a meditative prayer art exhibit, the image that was created by a child was removed from the exhibit in deference to children. As a gallery board member I was a part of the conversation regarding an effort to be sensitive to the loss of a church member’s son due to an incident with police almost exactly a year prior to the opening of the show. The decision to hang a curtain along with a written warning in front of this depiction of the station was determined to be the best solution. The piece was to remain in the show, just veiled. It wasn’t until after this conclusion had been reached that the concern that young children would be traumatized was approached and then became the basis for eliminating the art from the show.

I understand the concern. As a mother I can see the potential for a young child to be disturbed by what they would see. What I don’t understand is why a veil wasn’t considered an adequate protective measure. With a curtain hanging out of the reach of a very young child, parents would be given the opportunity to determine for themselves if the piece is appropriate for their child to view, and older children and adults would still have access to the piece which was intended for the exhibit. Within the context of the annual show, most older children and adults posses the critical thinking skills required to see beyond the charged controversy of a uniformed officer beating a young child (or anyone, for that matter) and comprehend the artist’s intent in depicting the Station he was assigned. Perhaps their experience of viewing the work would leave them disturbed and unsettled but I fail to see how that is not a common effect of the entire body of work for a Stations of the Cross exhibit, if not a desired effect. The Christian faith is controversial; indeed, the cross and empty tomb are one of the greatest controversies of all time. Anyone that would claim that the cross is not offensive, that the death of one innocent man for all of human kind is not offensive, does not understand the implications of such conviction. Regardless of what the leadership felt they needed to protect young children from seeing and experiencing in this depiction, however, what they have expressed is a distrust of the parents of their community to know their own children, to know what their own children can and cannot see, to understand the overall nature of the exhibit and to take the responsibility of educating their children in the faith. Instead of supplying the parents with the tools to have rich discussions with their children, the church leadership has chosen for them, censoring what they personally determined was too much. The argument should not be based on the question “is this image damaging to a young child that views it?” but rather “can parents be trusted with the responsibility of educating their children and determining what they can and cannot view.”

The artist did not step outside any of the given guidelines for his interpretation of the station he was asked to depict. Though it is clearly stated that the gallery could, at their own discretion, refrain from displaying any work considered inappropriate, if art featuring authority in a less than favorable light, if potential confusion on the part of the community’s children that come in contact with any given work, if controversial subject matter in general, are all considered unacceptable for the gallery, then perhaps the guidelines communicated to participating artists should be revised to reflect these restraints. Additionally, if parents can’t be expected to actively participate in their child’s experience of any of the art hanging in the shared space of Xnihilo gallery and Ecclesia’s worship gatherings, then the themes and subject matter of all potential shows and art work should be only of the most benign nature. Surely, even a meditative prayer exhibit on the torture and death of The Innocent God Incarnate should be eliminated from the gallery’s calender. Or, parents could be encouraged to discuss with their children the work presented in the gallery and to determine the appropriateness of any given piece themselves. Given that parents have to exercise their judgement responsibly in such matters on a daily basis I don’t think that it is asking too much that they continue to do so in an art gallery and worship experience unless it is actually desired that parents abdicate this responsibility to the church.

To compare a contrast, please consider this image from Stations of the Cross 2009.

Last year during Lent, I suddenly found my then 5, almost 6 year old daughter hugging my midsection as I talked to someone in the coffee shop at the Ecclesia community space. I asked her to go sit down with our family in the worship area but she refused. When I had finished speaking with my friend I asked my daughter why she wouldn’t go in and she explained that she was afraid of “the person.” Confused, I asked her what person she was referring to and she told me “the dead one with blood all over.” I quickly realized that she was talking about the piece for Station 11, a figure covered with a white piece of cloth, soaked with red paint with darts jutting out from the face and upper torso. Because the service was starting we found a different path to our seats that didn’t require us to pass that particular Station and I saved discussing the piece for later. Following the service I asked if she’d like to go with me to look at it. I read the artist statement to her and how the piece was created but she never let go of my hand and was anxious to get away from the piece.

As a family we decided that for the remainder of the show we would avoid that side of the worship space so our daughter wouldn’t have to worry about seeing the art work that so disturbed her. It was possible that I could have requested the curator to veil the piece, spoken with the elders about removing the work jutting into the worship space or expressed my concern to other parents and the children’s ministry director about an overly graphic and realistic form, but instead we worked it out as a family. This was an excellent learning opportunity for all of us and when she expressed that the figure on the wall was scary we talked about how the entire story of the cross is scary but that the beauty is in the love demonstrated in Christ’s suffering for us and in the victory of the resurrection. The piece disturbed her enough to affect her sleep, but we worked through it and I appreciate that the piece was a part of the show, and though its three dimensional presence made it seem very real to a young child, that same realness was part of the impact of the entire show. Outside the context of Stations of the Cross, I would have found work that was the likeness of a corpse covered with a bloody sheet with darts protruding from the body to be wildly inappropriate for our gallery/shared community and worship space for families. The show, however, made the piece appropriate and though it was unsettling I understand that participants and viewers should be unsettled. My husband and I appreciate that the decision was left to us, the parents of our children, and that such a graphic, gory and disturbing piece could remain as part of the whole exhibit, challenging and speaking to those mature enough to regulate for themselves the appropriateness of any given piece for their spirit. Four of my 5 children have seen and responded to the photograph for Station 7 for the 2010 show and the reaction to it was strong but nothing like the reaction to what looked like a dead body on the wall last year. Yes, 3 of my children were in the photograph and experienced the construction of the shot and that may have made a difference but even if that were not the case, their father and I would still exercise our responsibility as their parents in helping them to understand what they are seeing and determining if it was appropriate for them to view at all.

I'm interested to hear your views on these points.

Thank you,

Jessica Martin-Weber
Former curator, Former Xnihilo Gallery Board of Directors member


  1. You make many good points here. This dialogue could go on and on I think.
    I do not think the word "offensive" is a word to use to describe the cross. The thoughts and feelings evoked by the most graphic scenes of the Crucifixion are not related to the thoughts and feelings evoked in me by seeing a child being beaten by a police officer. Jesus DID die on the cross. A police officer did NOT beat the child. Having images of what is not true can be far more damaging than those that are, regardless of the "graphic" nature of either.

  2. "Art" is subjective to the viewer and is viewed through the viewer's prism of social mores, education and experience; knowing the context that the artist intends to portray brings understanding. I applaud how your family dealt with the 'frightening' of your child...no one really knows however what effect it had on her development until she is grown...we all have defining moments in our childhood. I would agree that any 'art' that provokes a strong initial reaction that belies it's true meaning be cloaked as was done with Jackson's exhibit with a warning that allows parents' discretion in allowing their children to view it. Well done.