The Annual ArtPrize Controversy
With the arrival of late summer comes what’s becoming an annual ArtPrize censorship controversy. Artist Nabil Mousa has had his ArtPrize entry “Paradise Built on the Bones of the Slaughtered” removed from its intended venue, the Grand Rapids City Hall. The sculpture consists of a set of three welded towers displaying ashes of the Bible, the Koran and the Torah.
2015 marks the sixth anniversary of ArtPrize, an international art exhibition held in Grand Rapids, Michigan in September and October of each year. The exhibits take over the city, and are on display virtually everywhere, from streets and the river to hundreds of venues around the city. ArtPrize has an unusually large top prize of $200,000 and various other prizes that total over $500,000. Another unique aspect of ArtPrize is that the top prize is juried by the public instead of traditional juries that consist of art experts and professionals.
ArtPrize has brought a huge boost to the entire area; hundreds of thousands of visitors crowd the streets and venues, and millions of dollars are poured into the local economy. It creates a very festive atmosphere to a city where just a decade or two ago, visitors would find nothing but empty, quiet streets. It’s quickly become an annual tradition to head downtown and spend hours wandering around viewing amazing art. It’s turned Grand Rapids into a true destination. How cool is that? It’s pretty cool. But…
— MousaTheArtist (@MousaTheArtist) September 11, 2015
But it seems there’s still very little tolerance for anything remotely “controversial.” Almost every year, there’s one or two pieces of art that are pulled or banned from competition by a venue for being too controversial… In my opinion, as someone who enjoys ArtPrize, and marvels at the boundless creativity of the artists who come from around the world to display their work, it’s the provocative stuff that’s often the most interesting. Like a good blog post, any art worth looking at is bound to offend somebody. Sometimes a work of art offends nearly everybody, and you know what? That’s OK! Art, even art with a religious theme like this one (pro or con) should illicit a response, in any form, positive AND negative…
I understand that this particular piece could be viewed as offensive or blasphemous by some.. it’s made out of burned religious texts, for crying out loud. And again, that’s OK. Sometimes a response to a work of art takes the form of disgust or revulsion, shock, horror, or any other negative adjective you can think of. That’s a work of art that’s THOUGHT-PROVOKING, which leads to a public discussion about said art, which if I’m not mistaken is what any art show should be looking for. What am I missing here? ArtPrize with nothing but “isn’t that a pretty picture” art is BORING. Every year some venue signs up to host art, then when they see it, backtrack; “Oh, we want to host art, but just not THAT art! It’s too…It’s too…why, it’s too CONTROVERSIAL!!”
Instead of making art go away if it’s provocative, why don’t we leave it up for all to see? To try to find out what the artists’ message is. What is he trying to say with this piece? Some will say that an artists’ message shouldn’t be considered when judging their work, but that’s crap. Art IS a message. A message that takes the form of a painting, a film, a song, a play or a sculpture. Just because many people may possibly be offended by its message doesn’t make it any less artistically relevant. Just the opposite. It makes it vital. Art shouldn’t always be easy or comforting. Sometimes, art needs to be hard, and brutal.
I tend to rail against censorship in all of its forms. If somebody bans a book (or tries to), I want to buy that book to see what the hubbub is all about (and I usually end up getting a great read out of it. Banned books are typically the best books out there.) Pull a work of art out of competition, or at least force it out of its intended venue, and I’m always going to pull for the artist and go out of my way to see his or her work and offer my support. I’d never heard of Nabil Mousa or seen any of his work until this story broke yesterday. But I’m following him now. I hope there’s an open-minded venue in town willing to host this. And if you’ve never been to ArtPrize, check it out. You’ll be sure to find lots of amazing art to inspire and thrill you. And, hopefully, something that might offend as well…And that’s OK.