When Art Offends

Last fall, the “Spillover II” sculpture was removed from Atwater Park in Shorewood over concerns that it contained anti-Semitic phrases. The situation has raised questions and conversations about the difference between art that challenges and art that offends


See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil. While this proverbial principle, rooted in interpretations—including the wisdom to not dwell on evil thoughts—it can also be interpreted as a personal doctrine for people to avoid seeing, listening to, or speaking about art that they find challenging or offensive.

Last November, a prominent sculpture in Shorewood’s Atwater Park became the subject of controversy. New Jersey blogger Matt Sweetwood spotted what he believed to be anti-Semitic messages in Jaume Plensa’s “Spillover II,” a crouching figure over eight feet tall, molded from a jumble of steel capital letters. In the cluster of supposedly random letters, Sweetwood spotted the phrases “Cheap Jew,” “Dead Jew,” and “Fry dead Jew,” all of which were arranged in non-linear sequences.

In subsequent interviews, Sweetwood said that he is convinced that the odds of the letters being arranged in this manner by chance are low. The piece of public art, erected in 2010, raised concern among village residents and local Jewish leaders after the blog post was published.

Plensa, one of the world’s most recognized public artists known for similar sculptures created from masses of letters, has said that the letters are not meant to form words and their organization has no significance. Nonetheless, he and his gallery paid to have the offending letters removed and replaced and to have the sculpture reinstalled. On behalf of Plensa, gallery owners Paul Gray of Chicago’s Richard Gray Gallery and Mary Sabbatino of New York’s Galerie Lelong said in a statement that the sculpture was “egregiously misinterpreted.”

It’s hard to say if Sweetwood’s claims are valid. Before the sculpture was removed, some ingenuity was requires in order to make these words visible. One could argue, as Sweetwood did, that it’s no  coincidence that these seemingly random jumbles of letters conveniently formed these words. On the other hand, Plensa has previously submitted designs for a Holocaust memorial displayed outside the Ohio statehouse, so one might question why he would submit these designs yet include anti-Semitic messages in a sculpture.

However, Plensa’s intentions can take a backseat to the conversations that arise from being offended by art—conversations we do not have nearly often enough. There’s a blurred line between offensive art and challenging art. Some art can be controversial and challenging in a way that isn’t offensive, and some can be so offensive that it exceeds any resemblance to intellectual challenge and falls into the category of purposeful prejudice. But a vast majority falls in the grey area in between, where a work could be judged offensive by some but also act to challenge preconceived notions and shed new light on a particular individual, a group of people, idea, or the world.

Take, for example, “Piss Christ,” a 1987 photograph by American artist and photographer Andres Serrano, which depicts a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s urine. Christians and Catholics were quick to denounce the piece as sacrilegious and offensive to those who believe in Jesus Christ. However, some lay and religious people, including art critic and nun Sister Wendy Beckett, found the photograph to be not blasphemous, but a statement on the ways in which contemporary society has come to regard Christ and the values he represents.

Consider the “Spillover II” controversy in Milwaukee’s own backyard. Sweetwood found “Spillover II” to be an anti-Semitic sculpture, whereas others might overlook the alleged messages and see a work that, as Gray and Sabbatino said, “Brings people from all cultures together…that asserts our similarities are more important and powerful than our differences.”

There’s a strain of relativism that permeates art. Some maintain that art is in the eye of the beholder. They would say that there is no built-in message in any given piece of art. If a viewer is offended, then that is his or her own interpretation at work and must be valid—at least to the viewer. Interpretation is up to the viewer, not the artist.

But art is not created in a vacuum. It is a form of communication that requires action on the part of both the sender (the artist) and the receiver (the consumer of art). An artist communicates a message through the piece, and it is up to the receiver to decode this message.

The artist isn’t always going to be present to offer his or her interpretation of the work, which sometimes results in wires becoming crossed. This leads to the discrepancy between art that challenges and art that offends. This is not to say that Sweetwood was wrong to be offended by seeing those words in the sculpture. But it’s also worth considering whether or not this is a case of misunderstanding and whether or not the intended message of the sculpture was overshadowed by the seemingly accidental placement of letters to form these words.

It’s worth noting that any artist could easily say that he or she meant no offense and probably didn’t consciously mean to create an offensive work. However, sometimes latent prejudices can still influence the creation of the work, and make it sexist, racist, homophobic—or, in this case, culturally insensitive—even if it wasn’t “meant” that way.

Refusing to interact with art—to not see it, listen to it, or speak of it—is to shy away from being challenged into considering different worldviews. Someone too quick to yell “offense” might miss the underlying message of the piece, and something they thought was offensive could actually be enlightening and engaging. Pope Francis has recently commented that a “communist crucifix”—a carving of Christ crucified on a hammer of sickle—is an example of protest art, took no offense, and said he understands the idea behind the crucifix.

Art is exceptionally influential. All forms of art have the power to change minds and touch hearts. An artist can impact how people perceive reality and how they react to the world around them. Art can inspire and provoke, and can be a powerful social commentary. But art can only be a powerful social commentary if people understand that it is making a statement, not trying to needle the viewer with offensive meanings. An Evri Kwong portrait—“Home on the Range,” 2008, in the Haggerty Museum of Art permanent collection—of a cowboy straddling a Native American might appear offensive at first glance, even though Kwong is critiquing Native American treatment by white men throughout history.

Sometimes the easiest way for people to respond to art they find objectionable is to disregard it or criticize it—to see no evil. But this is not the most productive response. Perhaps what should happen is the formidable work of engaging both the artist and the work itself. Some art serves only to distress, but what is distasteful at first sight often turns out to be a channel through which perspectives are challenged, exchanged, and sometimes, changed.


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