Anniversary and where Ive been all this time!

So this week marks the 1-year anniversary of this website,  I want to announce that the shorter URL:  now is active and for the time being comes to the same spot! Easier to type in and remember!  With that announcement I feel it is necessary to explain why Ive been so un-posty lately.

I moved to NYC in August to go to graduate school at NYU for Museum Studies.  I am using this time to research and to reach conclusions about the nature of sexual subjects and sexual representations in museums, arguably one of the most influential cultural institutions AVAILABLE for people of all ages, genders, races and socio-economic backgrounds.

What i am looking into currently is how controversy and censorship is handled for institutions who wish to mount exhibitions that deal with sexual subjects, and how those controversies or censorships are employed among the strategies of museums to ENGAGE their audience (ie YOU) in their reasoning and sometimes in larger cultural and political discourse on sexuality and obscenity.

One of the first of these examples is the traveling retrospective of the artist Robert Mapplethorpe in the exhibit titled “The Perfect Moment” in 1989.  This exhibit was one of the first exhibits to place explicitly sexual subjects and subjects of Kink and homosexuality into large, international, legitimate public museums, and resulted in a nation-wide debate on decency vs obscenity, freedom and authority of museums and of the arts, as well as what role the government can and should play in the deciding and regulating of sexual and controversial subject matters.  The exhibit resulted in the arrest and indictment of a Cincinnati curator and the museum itself, and also resulted in the cancelation of the exhibit at the Corcoran Museum in Washington DC,  forcing it to be placed into a different and arguably less well known and less important museum in Washington.

Stemming from this, the laws on decency and obscenity and First Amendment rights on free speech were called into question, originally defined by the 1973 Miller v California case.  The law on obscenity states a 3 prong criterion for determining if a work is obscene and therefor not protected by free speech:

1) A work may be subject to state regulation where that work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest in sex; 2) portrays, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; 3) and, taken as a whole, does not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

2. The basic guidelines for the trier of fact must be:

(a) whether “the average person, applying contemporary community standards” would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, [Roth, supra, at 489,]

(b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law, and

(c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. If a state obscenity law is thus limited, First Amendment values are adequately protected by ultimate independent appellate review of constitutional claims when necessary.


As a result of this it was determined that typically if determined by a number of museum professionals that a questionable work has artistic merit, it is protected by the 1st amendment.  This was a major stress and drama for the art world, and posed a potential danger to artists and institutions who wish to work with sexual themes, but it was also a victory, or a step in the right direction, because it resulted in the legal precedent that stated that museum professionals did in fact have the ability to deem a work legitimate, even if it contained material sexually offensive to members of the public. While communities still have the ability to say “not in our back yard” as was the case in Cincinnati, the ability to hold professionals criminally liable for the representation of those themes was denied.

Stemming from this, a number of sexually themed exhibits in museums and in other cultural exhibitionary institutions, presented exhibits of a sexual nature with a varying level of outcry to its offensive, obscene or indecent material.  Notable examples include the Sensations exhibit, another traveling show, which encountered international conflict, being banned in Australia, and caused a HUGE uproar in NYC, resulting in Mayor Rudy Guiliani’s attempt to shut down the Brooklyn Museum and to form a “Decency committee” to regulate and prevent museums in New York from exhibiting subjects like “pornography” and also of key interest, blasphemy.  Since the court, especially the Supreme Court famously does not intervene in the case of works that are considered religiously offensive, the arguments are typically couched within sexual subjects and the pursuit of choking out pornography, masquerading as art.  Guiliani’s attempt to promote a decency committee was uneventful, and attacks against funding institutions such as the National Endowment for the Arts was also unsuccessful, because the governing charter of the NEW states clearly that it can not and should not seek to control how artists and institutions choose their subjects.

On the heels of the talk of a decency committee in NY comes the opening of the Museum of Sex, opening in October 2002.  The museum, a private for-profit historically focused museum sought to give voice to these materials, and to allow the public to experience this history and these subjects that are otherwise obfuscated due to public policy and the prudish restrictions of funding agencies that play a major factor in pressuring the programming of public museums.  My argument is that while MoSex does aim to represent these subjects that otherwise have no home, that because they have skirted the rules and regulations imposed on other museums that with that goes a considerable amount of credibility which may never be regained.  Furthermore, as a result of not being beholden to those professional standards, they are also seemingly free to represent which sides of the story to tell, and therefor which not to tell.  The overwhelming result is a permanent exhibit that seems spotty at best, resembling more of a sex industry/sex shop display of the bizarre and its resultant oddities.

I believe, and can prove, that this does little to educate previously uninformed otherwise not-sexually adventurous visitors, and beyond that does not provide an environment of legitimacy that would attract or engage viewers who arent specifically interested in being exposed to unusual sex practices.  In other words, by setting itself apart of the museum complex, it is not an appealing environment to those who seek a well rounded exposure to culture, but rather only to those who specifically wish sexual excitement or sexual novelty.  In this way it simply preaches tot he choir, or shocks those who wish to be amused by its subject and can not and does not accomplish its mission of providing an even handed culturally or historically significant representation of the history of sex.  It leaves several crucial features out, such as the gay rights movement, love/marriage both traditionally and in current debate, and instead focuses its space on showing 8 varieties of anal toys (all unlabeled) and a disproportionate amount of BDSM equipment and 1970’s porn to any other aspect of sex, sexual products, sexuality and certainly in no way fosters or encourages visitors to identify or personalize any of the material it does in fact present.

So thats what I am doing, and thats why I have been so out of reach lately 🙂

Love ya, Happy Tgiving, and thanks for a wonderful 1st year!

~ by Klawdya Rothschild on November 26, 2009.

One Response to “Anniversary and where Ive been all this time!”

  1. Brings back memories of a paper I did in college about media, art, and the First Amendment.

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