Mujeres Públicas, “Cajita de fósforos” (2005) in ‘Really Useful Knowledge’ at the Museo Reina Sofia (image courtesy Museo Reina Sofía, 2014)

International museum associations have come to the defense of Spain’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía after a provocative artwork drew fire from church groups. Displayed as part of a recently opened exhibition, Really Useful Knowledge, Mujeres Públicas’s “Cajita de fósforos” (2005) consists of two matchboxes depicting, on one side, a burning church building, and on the other, the slogan: “The only church that illuminates is one which burns. Contribute!” (La única iglesia que ilumina es la que arde. ¡Contribuya!). The presentation of the piece by Mujeres Públicas, an Argentine feminist collective, was equated by one religious organization to a use of public funds by the state museum to “insult Christians.”

In response to these and other agitations, which were reported in the Spanish press last week, the Reina Sofia museum issued a release stating that “the works of art … reflect only the opinions of their authors,” and that the exhibition is protected from censorship by the principles of freedom of expression guaranteed by the Spanish constitution.

Two major international associations of arts institutions — CIMAM, the modern art committee of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and L’Internationale, a confederation of six major European art museums — have now also responded to the calls for censorship with statements pushing back against the pressure from church groups. An online petition addressed to the Spanish ministry of Education, Culture, and Sport being circulated by CIMAM approaches 1,600 signatories as of this writing.

“We don’t know how far [the protest] will go, but we thought that we had to show our concern and use the opportunity to say something serious about what museums can do and what they should be doing today … not as lifestyle institutions but serious places,” Vasif Kortun, a board member at CIMAM and partner and incumbent president of L’Internationale, told Hyperallergic.

In a statement provided to Hyperallergic earlier today, L’Internationale critiqued the myopia of the calls for censorship, writing, in part:

Like the many other pieces that make up the exhibition Really Useful Knowledge, “Cajita de fósforos” alludes to the transformative and emancipatory power of something small and modest (such as a box of matches) when understood within a network of subtle historical references. … L’Internationale believes that a democratic society should expect and require that its public museums are nor merely vehicles for the legitimisation and reproduction of established discourses and views of past and present power.

Mujeres Públicas is among 36 artists and collectives represented in the Really Useful Knowledge exhibition, including such diverse practitioners as Ariella Azoulay, Trevor Paglen, Chto Delat?, and D. A. Pennebaker. The show, organized by Croatian curatorial collective What, How & for Whom (WHW) opened October 29 and continues through February 9, 2015. The “knowledge” the title refers to invokes the label applied by workers’ organizations in the early 19th century to the bodies of knowledge not directly related to productive labor, like politics, economics, and philosophy.

Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.

6 replies on “Matchbox Artwork Sparks Censorship Calls at Madrid Museum”

  1. Are the same principles of freedom of expression guaranteed by the Spanish constitution when speaking of Jewish and Holocaust? Could an artist deny holocaust?

    1. One, this knee-jerk response of using the Holocaust as the litmus test for ethical action has got to stop. It’s just trite and hackneyed and betrays a poverty of imagination. Two, why would you use a circumstance of outright racist behavior to talk about art work that confronts the church on its historical use of violence and coercion?

  2. From the limited information available here, Mujeres Públicas’s work seems as a form of hate speech and an incitement to violence. On a symbolic level, it appears similar to the recent actions of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. How would museum supports, myself included, feel if we were to substitute the symbol of the church in this artwork with that of a museum (or any other ideological temple)? Then again, Públicas’s work is inline with now conventional controversies in conceptual art. It deserves little attention in terms of artistic creativity.

    1. I think if you substituted references to the museum, the work would be no more controversial, and if the Reina Sofia museum and ICOM and the other organizations that are supporting the Really Useful Knowledge exhibition are acting from a place of integrity (and I think they are) the work would still be defended by them.

      With this kind of work, which is in ONE aspect a provocation, the ensuing intellectual and rhetorical struggle with institution of the church and its effects is part of the power of the piece. It generates a discussion, a grappling with a difficult issue, or set of issues. The historical record shows that the church has often obscured or denied collective truths that did not gel with established ecclesiastical dogma. The use of violence by the institution seems to me a worthwhile subject for artistic consideration.

      1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Two main clarifications are useful here. 1. regarding the Church history: a. The Church, for Christians, is not an institution but a collective body of believers; hence, a simplistic and essentialist attack on the symbol of the Church is an attack on all these believers (not the corrupt leaders or members). b. Arguably, the days of the (non-spiritual) political power of the Church (at least in Western societies) have gone, a form of capitalist secularism (whose temples include the State supported Museum) is now in power; accordingly, I find the harping on the corruption of the older system is a simplistic decoy at this point in time. More importantly, the errs of the institution of the church, as you name it, are only ONE aspect of that institution’s ongoing history, throwing the baby with the bathwater is not useful; besides, can you name one institution at any historical moment which did not suffer from corruption? I am NOT suggesting that pointing out dark behavior should be stifled, which brings me to point 2: I reiterate my frustration with this work’s essentialist, detail lacking, and uncreative aspects. I would have highly appreciated a work which creatively represented a historical moment of corruption in the institution (as an example of the consistent corruption pattern in Human history). Alas, this work, in my opinion, follows a known easy road to fame through controversy: insulting a religion. To me, essentialist incitement to violence, does not yield interesting art. This is not my ideal form of artistic provocation. Thanks again.

        1. Dear Tony,

          I have to say you’ve given a very thoughtful reply and I appreciate it. You raise a fair point about how the church reads as a collective body united by belief and not an institution. However you have, at least in the verbal construction of your argument made these two views seem mutually exclusive. I would lay odds that Christians can view the church both ways at the same time. Hence, a (admittedly) simplistic statement about the usefulness of the church does not HAVE to be seen as an attack on the members. Some of you are much smarter than that.

          Two: It is not an older system that is corrupt but I would argue the institution as it is now is still corrupt and uses a form of violence to suppress and limit people’s life chances. Look at the violence done to children who were widely and consistently molested by priests (and this is still being uncovered). Look at the damage that the religion is doing in the Philippines where overcrowding and starvation are endemic and the church still stands staunchly against birth control. The church maybe doing good in places, but right this very minute someone is being harmed by it, particularly in poor areas where formal education opportunities are lacking.

          And yes, the work is essentializing, and lacking in detail, but sometimes artwork is a simple polemic: “Obey”, “You develop elaborate rituals to touch the skin of other men”, “Change”. I can throw out a slew of artists who have made statements like this: Kruger; D. Martinez, Basquiat, Magritte; Duchamps, et .al. I think it’s fine that this art is not interesting to you, but I do not think it’s fair to say that it is seeking fame through controversy. They may just be seeking to say something true.

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