On the New York Times City Room blog, freelance writer Fred Bernstein reported how an exhibit called "And/Or" at the New York art gallery P.S. 1 proved to be too sexually mature for his children. It may soon draw an angry letter from CBS:
Two minutes later, I saw something alarming over my right shoulder: a giant photo of Katie Couric delivering the evening news with her genitalia exposed. (I later read that the artist, Jonathan Horowitz, had Photoshopped Britney Spears'snaked lower body onto Ms. Couric's upper.) The boys didn't see the piece, and I didn't want them to, so without saying a word, I put my hands against their backs and hustled them into the next room.
"Why are you pushing us?" Jake asked.
"There was something there that wasn't appropriate for children," I said, afraid that would only make him want to go back.
It's O.K. if P.S. 1 wants to show vulvas in extreme close-up. (I don't believe in censorship.) What's not O.K. is that the only warning to parents was a tiny sign at the entrance to the gallery. The wording was clear - "These galleries contain graphic imagery. Parent/adult discretion is advised" - but the size and style of the sign made it unlikely that any harried parent would even notice it.
The usual writers on the museum beat at the New York Times must not have found the bottomless-Katie image worth mentioning. In a roundup, they only described the Horowitz exhibit as a "smart, crisply edited retrospective. The works evoke the media-saturated art of the 1970s, the neo-Conceptualist consumer art of the 1980s and the identity art of the 1990s, landing in a Never-Neverland era, in which analog is poised to turn to digital, and Doris Day and Paris Hiltonhave equal currency."
Bernstein also suggested that an exhibit last year at the Brooklyn Museam clearly crossed the family-friendly line:
A Takashi Murakami show at the Brooklyn Museum in 2008 was a major draw for parents and kids. The first piece on display, a teaser in the museum's lobby, was a playful sculpture of cartoonlike characters, which made my sons want to see more.
So it came as a shock when, entering the main exhibition space, we were greeted by a masturbating cowboy spinning a lasso of his semen. There was no warning, unless you counted the sign urging parents and teachers to preview exhibitions before bringing children to see them. (Great advice, but hardly practical.)
The Brooklyn Museum is particularly popular with families, which is why I found the prominent placement of the cowboy disturbing. One visitor to the Murakami show blogged that "It was amusing to watch parents as they tried to herd their kids and toddlers away from ejaculating penises and disturbing videos." Amusing? Why do I think this blogger doesn't have children?
There may well be parents who think it's all right for their young children to view sexually explicit artworks. (Somebody bought the Murakami sculpture, which is called "My Lonesome Cowboy," for more than $15 million, and for all I know installed it in a house swarming with kids.) But I'm not in that group.
Do New York museums really want to make parents scared of what their kids will see around the corner?