‘Repulsive to children and adults’: how explicit should public art get?

Censorship in metro stations and other public places reveal a limit to how far were prepared to be challenged by art

The Vienna tourist board had long earmarked 2018 for its year-long retrospective of Viennese modernism. Unexpectedly, of all the artworks it could have advertised it with- Gustav Klimt’s tender Kiss; Venus in the Grotto by Koloman Moser- it chose a selection of characteristically baleful, spindly nudes by Egon Schiele.

” We thought it was so stark, so strong to work with in ad ,” says spokesperson Helena Hartlauer one drizzly afternoon at Cafe Museum, a traditional coffeehouse in Vienna where Schiele, Klimt and their peers were regulars more than 100 years ago.” And then we were made to cover most of it up .”

Advertising regulators in Germany, the UK and US all refused to display the figures- male and female- uncensored. A source close to the decision-making of Transport for London expressed concern that the depiction of genitals, though artistic, could be at odds with public wellbeing.

The decisions demonstrated not only Schiele’s continued capacity to shock, 108 years after his nudes were removed from an exhibition for their” obscene nature”, but also the unseen ceiling on artistic expression in shared spaces.

Public art is usually spoken of approvingly, as is art that pushes bounds. But is there a limit to how challenged we’re prepared to be in places like airports and train stations, where everyone has to go?

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After two weeks of back-and-forth about how much Schiele’s nudes needed to be covered, the Viennese tourist board had the idea to reframe the rejection as an opportunity. It resubmitted the posters with an apology splashed across Schiele’s bare bodies:” SORRY, 100 years old but still too daring today .” The accompany hashtag, #ToArtItsFreedom, referenced the slogan of the Viennese secession:” To every age its art, to art its liberty .”

” We figured it’s the exact same discussion” as 100 years ago, says Hartlauer.” It’s art, it’s not pornographic. But apparently some people are still offended .”

Of course in this case Schiele’s art was also advertising, and therefore in London was held to the same standards as any other material displayed on TfL’s network. With 31 million trips recorded every day, TfL says it must be considerate of its large and diverse audience.

From its recent censorship of both a woman’s bare back and an irreverent funeral campaign, TfL seems to err on the side of caution.( German authorities agreed to display Schiele’s female nude with torso uncovered; TfL didn’t .) Surely a distinction can be made between a masterpiece in oil on canvas and Gary Lineker with his kit off?

slider embed of London and Cologne/ Hamburg versions
Slide to see the different versions of the poster displayed in the UK and Germany.

A spokeswoman referred Guardian Cities to TfL’s advertising policy, which says that though it does not seek to be a censor, its network is largely closed:” unlike Tv, online and print media, people cannot simply switch off or turn a page if an advertisement offends or upsets them “.

This is a crucial distinction with other public expressions of artistic nudity: as functional, shared spaces, transport hubs have to try to accommodate everyone.

In Stockholm, where the metro doubleds as the world’s longest art gallery, with runs by 150 artists displayed in 90 of the 110 stations, the line can be harder to draw. Last year The Night Garden, a series of 26 enlarged felt-pen sketches- of birds, cats, trees and even naked humen- by the graphic artist Liv Stromquist, known for her feminist and satirical perspective, was accepted for exhibition at Slussen station. Three of the 26 images captured particular attention: those indicating women with visible menstrual blood. One, of an ice skater in repose with a red stain on her leotard, was captioned” It’s Alright( I’m Only Bleeding )”.

Images of it ran viral, further cementing the city’s progressive reputation. Stromquist says an American tourist told her they’d made a special trip to Slussen station just to see it.” This would never happen in the US ,” they told her. She says:” They think it’s typical for Sweden because there has been so much feminist progress .”

Cartoon
Cartoon of a menstruating woman by the comic artist Liv Stromquist at Slussen station, defaced by black paint. Photograph: Janet Carr

In truth, the cartoons were polarising even in Stockholm. Feedback to the transport company Storstockholms Lokaltrafik( SL) ranged from” the best you’ve ever done” and” it makes me happy each time” to” vulgar, dirty and provocative” and” repulsive to both children and adults “.

” People felt that this is a sign that our society is going in the right direction, and a sign that everything is falling apart ,” says Stromquist, laughing.

Nearly all of the 30 -odd responses formally logged by SL were critical of the menstruating characters. Most were from humen, and many expressed concern about the potential toll on children and Sweden’s international reputation. The menstruating ice skater was defaced in one station with black paint, as was cartoonist Kolbeinn Karlsson’s” bathhouse diary” series of homoerotic male nudes at Fridhemsplan station.

The far-right populist Sweden Democrat( who saw an increase in support in the recent election) even politicised her work in a meme, juxtaposing one of her images with an oil painting of barges: their preferred interpretation of public art.

Screengrab
Screengrab of a meme apparently made by the Sweden Democrats. The central caption reads: “Art in public transport”, and points to Stromquist’s picture saying ” Today” and to a painting of a harbour scene saying ” With our politics “. Photograph: Liv Stromquist

Stromquist acknowledges she was surprised when SL accepted The Night Garden, and praises it for having” the guts to set it up “.” You very rarely find menstrual blood out in a public space ,” she says.” I was expecting them to say’ This is too provocative ,’ but they didn’t .”

Martina Viklund, a spokeswoman for SL, says the metro’s artworks are decided by a panel with few guiding criteria beyond session a particular professional standard.

” Art is art ,” she says.” It’s an expression, a way of thinking- it would be wrong to limit artists and not give them this chance .” She believes the criticism of Stromquist’s cartoon reflects a taboo over a natural part of life, and demonstrates the need for more provocative public art- “so we can start the discussion”.

To that, some might ask whether their commute is the time or the place. Many complainants said Stromquist’s cartoons would suit a museum- or” places where people actually want to look at it”, to quote one- but not the metro, where more than 1 million journeys are recorded each day.

Yet Stockholm metro bills itself as ” one gigantic art gallery “: did Stromquist and Karlsson push that function of the space too far?

” Of course I understand[ the debate] that’ I need to go on this metro, maybe I don’t want to look at this ‘,” Viklund says.” But it’s still art. I guess it’s hard to please everyone .”( For art that does please everyone, look to Dusseldorf’s U-Bahn, where it nearly passes for engineering .)

Back in Vienna, Hartlaeur says the tourist board’s campaign was more successful precisely because of TfL’s cover-up. She says it triggered a global debate about artistic censorship, double standards for advertising, the appropriateness of the human body and the need for shared spaces to be inclusive of all.

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A handpainted mural of a run by Egon Schiele in New York. Photograph: David Plakke for Vienna Tourist Board

When the board extended the campaign to New York, it was censored on the subway; the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has form for repudiating ads depicting ” sex or excretory activities “.

But the city made one notable exception.

A full-frontal female nude( risque even for Schiele, and not employed elsewhere in the advertising campaign) was shown uncensored, several metres high, on the side of a building- simply because it was a handpainted mural.

The double standard amazes Hartlauer.” In the metro, it was the same regulations that had applied in Europe, but with the mural it was abruptly possible .” She adds, with some satisfaction:” And we’d choose the most explicit one .”

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