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Art shatters our way of thinking

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In 1987, artist Andres Serrano created Piss Christ, which involved a photograph of a small crucifix immersed in a jar of his own urine.

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In 1987, artist Andres Serrano created Piss Christ, which involved a photograph of a small crucifix immersed in a jar of his own urine.

Art is often controversial. That is not to say artists are always aware they are generating controversy.

In 1987, artist Andres Serrano created what might be one of the most controversial works in modern art. Piss Christ involved a photograph of a small crucifix immersed in a jar of his own urine. Serrano, who is Catholic himself, says the photograph was a pointed comment on the cheapening of Christian icons in our culture. The work, funded by a grant from the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, was critically acclaimed and award-winning. The public, however, reacted with disdain.

Serrano was condemned on the floor of the U.S. Senate. He received death threats and had other grants taken away from him in protest. To this day, Piss Christ still causes controversy wherever it is shown.

In a lifetime of making and teaching others about art, University of Manitoba Prof. Cliff Eyland has learned artists are among the last people to realize they have created a controversy.

"Artists are surprised to discover that their work is controversial at all," said Eyland, who will participate in a debate about art and controversy at the Free Press News Caf© on Friday. "Controversies come in all shapes and sizes, and often vary unexpectedly."

Eyland is renowned for supporting artists of all kinds, and notably for championing artists of the more controversial ilk. Recently, his research has focused on the work of Carolee Schneemann, an artist whose 1964 performance Meat Joy consisted of eight nearly nude people cavorting with wet paint, raw chickens and sausages. Eyland said her work is often greatly misunderstood and until recently, her "radicalism impeded the proper recognition of her achievement."

Eyland has also interacted with many of Winnipeg's most controversial artists. When he moved here from Halifax in 1994, he almost immediately befriended performance artist Sharon Alward and learned about her early work, Totentanz, a very personal comment about the incredible loss of life brought about by the AIDS crisis. In the work, she poured five gallons of blood and bull's semen on the Plug In Gallery floor, and then spent several hours cleaning it up. The press and public were appalled by the art's graphic nature. Eyland, however, believed the work to be brilliant but was concerned the controversy may have overshadowed the profound message behind the work.

In this instance, however, Alward was patently aware her work would be controversial. In a strategic move, she did not use government grant money to pay for the gallons of blood and semen to ensure taxpayer support would not become an issue that detracted from the message of her art.

Eyland joined Plug In's board soon after he moved here, becoming involved in a 1995 controversy when the gallery attempted to mount a show of rather bad clown paintings by executed serial killer John Wayne Gacy. The public, not surprisingly, howled in protest. Eyland said while he understood the reaction, it definitely limited dialogue about the works. Ideally, Eyland said, he would have preferred the exhibit sparked a vigorous debate about good and bad art, and about how we view the gallery -- "as a sacred space that should only house the moral and the beautiful, or as a type of courtroom where we all have fair chance to judge its contents."

Breaking open our ways of thinking is one of the roles of art. When art critics or scholars disagree among themselves, it makes fertile ground for discussion. If the art world insists the gallery become a fair-game courtroom, then opposing views provide opportunity for us to weigh the evidence and develop informed opinions.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 31, 2013 B4

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