Got my attention, too. I actually was at the opening of this gallery show yesterday evening, and one of the artists was telling me about the incident. He told me that there had been a controversial nude sculpture installed, but that there had been complaints about it, and it was being removed from the show. In fact, that morning, the artist had arrived to pick it up, but when she got there, she found that the sculpture had been "defaced." In fact, it had been "de-penised."
So, I was listening to this story, and I was seeing images of the famous "Mannekin pis" in Brussels, or Michelangelo's David, and so on, and thinking, "Really, Portland? Really?" But then suddenly, the light went on. I turned to the artist, who was male, and asked, "Was it an erection?" And, indeed it was.
So, now, the kaleidoscope of my brain turned again, and the patterns of my thinking rearranged themselves. This time, I was remembering Sylvia Plath's tombstone... and notice I say, "Sylvia Plath." The tombstone, which had been carved with her married name, "Sylvia Plath Hughes" had a history of defacement. Apparently fans of Plath's work have repeatedly chiseled off the name "Hughes." Some have attributed her suicide to her husband's affair with another woman, whom he would later marry, and with whom he would father a child. Hughes' second wife would also commit suicide, but, unlike Plath, she would murder her child first.
So I'm thinking about that. I am also thinking about Georgia O'Keeffe, who wrote how, at the Art Institute of Chicago, she was required to take a course in anatomy that entailed the painting of nude male subjects. She had had a strong emotional response to the situation, and an even stronger response to her experience of the first class session. Apparently traumatized, she gave serious thought to dropping out. This did not seem to be to be about squeamishness or Puritanism. It seemed to be a survivor's response to a situation that would restimulate the trauma, the exposure to a naked man (and his genitals) being the probable trigger.
I am also thinking about a former girlfriend, who expressed a similar discomfort with an live-modeling art course. She actually went to her professor with a request for an alternative arrangement for passing the course. If I am remembering rightly, he did begrudgingly offer an alternative, gave her a poor grade, and maintained a somewhat hostile and distant attitude toward her for the remainder of her time at the school.
I am thinking of all of these things, around this "defacement." The suffusion of blood into the male organ appears to be, in the public mind, the difference between art and pornography, anatomy and indecency. Had the sculpture's penis been flaccid, I doubt it would have been excised. First, it would not have been such an easy target, and second, I doubt it would have triggered such a powerful response.
And, yes, it could have been a college prank. It could have been a group of frat boys (the gallery is located on a campus). But I can't shake the feeling that the vandal (activist?) was a woman, or women, and that the action was political... a response to iconography that appeared to be celebrating something that she--or they--had experienced as a weapon.
And all of this is going through my brain in a few seconds. I'm in the middle of a conversation. To backtrack: I have just asked if it was an erection. He says "yes." And everything stops for me. He stands there, puzzled. I'm not sure what he's waiting for. What I do know is that I have nothing to say. Because I have too much to say. Is it vandalism to chisel out Hughes' name? After all, Plath had chosen to publish under her maiden name. Who was doing the disrespecting? Who owns history? Who is the dead poet's family?
And O'Keeffe... we all know her flowers and her canyons look like vulvas. Was this a response to a situation where she had been forced to make a choice between her career or her safety? Was this her revenge... that the world must now focus on, write commentary about, celebrate the vulva in order to deal with her as an artist?
And, of course, I am remembering my girlfriend. I am remembering how difficult it is for two artists, who are both women, to fight for our lives as artists and still have the resources to support each other.
I am thinking about how, as a heavily censored artist, I will probably be expected to register outrage at this act of vandalism and censorship. But I know how celebrations of the phallus traumatize and silence survivors. That is the censorship that concerns me. I know that if I express ambivalence toward, or support for the defacement, I will be miscategorized ("sex negative"). I know that to try to explain how the depiction of an erection in a public place can feel threatening... like a racial epithet in grafitti, like a swastika, will bring down even more contempt on my head. I know it will prove that my "unfortunate" and "atypical" (1 out of 3 women!) experiences have warped my perceptions, embittered me, and rendered me an enemy to freedom of expression.
If he was paying attention, my artist conversation-buddy might note the eloquence of my silence. I am inviting him to demonstrate alliance. He must know that the ball is in his court. I cannot open the survivor files without a password. Anyone who reads the newspaper should know what it is. Anyone who has ever had a daughter, a mother, a wife, a girlfriend should know it. And what about his silence... what does that signify?
I am guessing he is baffled, but there is a 3% chance that he understands, that he is a survivor also, that he is unwilling to risk an act of language here in this sunny garden, with all these art lovers holding their plastic cups of wine and their plates of camembert.
The question remains: Was it art? Where is the phallus now? Was it pulverized in an act of ritualized rage, and if so, was it a solo performance, or witnessed? Is it sitting on the mantle of a frat house, trophy of a daring prank, rite of passage to manhood? Is it stuffed in a dumpster? Tossed in a river?
Personally, I think that the statue, sans penis, should be exhibited. I don't believe that will happen, because that is too suggestive of the really censored art: women's anger, women's agency.