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A work on view in Socrates Sculpture Park’s Emerging Artist Fellowship exhibition has been surrounded by a tall wood fence after some Queens residents complained that it was lewd and inappropriate, the New York Times reports.
The piece, titled “Bear Eats Man,” was made by Icelandic-born, New York–based artist Thordis Adalsteinsdottir. In a rough-hewn, folky style, it depicts a bear approaching a naked man from behind and getting ready to take a bite out of his shoulder. But, as the Daily News (ever so subtly) pointed out in an article that ran the day after the show opened, the man also has an erection:
“The figures are meant as a commentary on the adversarial, and at times violent, confrontation between ‘man’ and ‘nature,’ said John Hatfield, executive director of the Socrates Sculpture Park. “This male nude is not intended to be sexually provocative.”
Oh, but it is! It is!
That article also quoted Rob MacKay, director of the Queens Tourism Council, as calling the sculpture “in poor taste.”
Two and a half months later, a blogger who goes by the name George the Atheist, and whom the Times calls “well-read,” wrote an “open letter to the New York City Parks Commissioner Veronica White.” Its message was clear from the title: “Bestiality Sanctioned at Queens Park.” George the Atheist wrote:
Dear Ms White: I recently discovered this work of “art” at the Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City. Please see photos below. I was curious as to how the Parks Department of which you are the Commissioner ever approved of the emplacement of such an item? I am certain many citizens would find and have found in it moral offense in its visual obscenity. Do you?
Surely you are aware that this so-called “sculpture” is situated on parkland that is tax-payer supported? Was there ever a public hearing held on the appropriateness of this so-called “sculpture”?
George goes on to call Adalsteinsdottir an “artist” — in quotes — and even has a bit of wordplay fun, calling her artist statement “cock and bull” and “blowsy” copy. He ends by claiming that the sculpture “borders on child abuse.”
According to the Queens Chronicle, the parks department responded to George, telling him that artworks displayed in the park are not subject to their approval. Socrates Sculpture Park officials also placed a sign at the entrance to the park, warning of nudity inside. But George countered that it was too small, and Socrates officials responded again by saying they would “re-evaluate the sign” with the artist’s input. Finally, they decided on a tall wood fence, which was placed around the sculpture within the last week and a half.
Outside of the handful of commenters the Daily News was able to drum up and George the Atheist, it’s not clear whether any large number of people were offended by the sculpture. But the pressure worked. From pictures, it looks as though the new wood fence blocks the sculpture quite effectively, enclosing it on three sides and leaving only the heads of the figures visible from afar; the fourth, open side, is dominated by a cluster of trees. In an interview with the Times, Hatfield insisted that the fence does not constitute censorship: “Censorship would be to remove or alter the work itself, to deny the ability to see the work.”
Neither Socrates Sculpture Park nor Thordis Adalsteinsdottir responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment by the time of publication.
Update, 5:44pm EST: Socrates Sculpture Park has sent us a written statement from Executive Director John Hatfield. It reads, in part:
Public art, on occasion, can be challenging, and we support artists and artworks in the public domain that engage people on many different levels and topics. We support Thordis Adalsteinsdottir’s figurative tableau, Bear Eats Man, as a thought-provoking work of art. In response to concerns about this particular sculpture, Socrates and the artist decided to create a perimeter outdoor area with signage so parents, guardians and teachers would be able to preview the artwork to decide if appropriate for minors. Similar to a museum setting, the partition allows visitors to decide if they wish to view the sculpture or not.
While we would ideally like our temporary public art to be embraced by everyone, we realistically expect a diversity of reactions—not all favorable–regardless of the style or content of the work. It is everyone’s first amendment right to express their concerns about and appreciation for this work of art. It has been, and continues to be, the role of artists to inspire and confound, elucidate and mystify, reveal truths and create fiction. Socrates Sculpture Park has exhibited over 900 hundred artists over 27 years and supports their creative endeavors.