The World’s Most Offensive Museum Might Just Be its Most Important

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About two weeks ago I felt a familiar, visceral fear of violence in an unexpected place: an art museum’s opening festivities in Eixample, one of Barcelona’s poshest neighborhoods. 

It was one of those sensations that’s sadly quotidian to most people who grew up in the United States—the slight quickening of one’s pulse and eyes scanning for potential threats when we hear or glimpse what might be a gun, or turn one of our eerily empty corners onto a block with burnt-out street lights at night. That kind of fight-or-flight flicker of primal dread isn’t something I had ever experienced in the relative safety of Western Europe (save for childhood visits to Northern Ireland, back in the days of heavily-armed soldiers scanning for car bombs at barbed wire checkpoints… but that’s a whole other, messy story). 

Yet there I was, arriving at the preview for Europe’s newest art museum, and I had a sudden moment of panic noticing that no one bothered to put my silly little gay tote bag through the metal detector in the lobby. That’s not something that would usually even occur to me at an art opening, but I had just received a Google News notification about the EU-wide elevated terrorism risk on my way there. 

And this was no normal art museum. 

The stairwell, featuring "Lena, London" by queer South African photographer Zanele Muholi
Eugenio Merino, "Always Franco," a sculpture of the former dictator
Núria Güell & Levi Orta, "Ideologías Oscilatorias," an art car banned from a festival by the Figueres City Council for its references to dictatorships

The Museu de l’Art Prohibit is, according to its founders, the first of its kind: a museum dedicated to the collection, preservation, and display of art that has been censored (in one way or another) elsewhere. Its contents are equal-opportunity offenders—having already outraged most of the world’s major religions, every corner of the political spectrum, and ultra-nationalists both here in Spain as well as locales ranging from Japan to Mexico, to name a few. 

The museum is the brainchild of journalist Tatxo Benet, who became alarmed at the resurgence of censorship in the art world at the opening of the 2018 edition of the ARCO fair in Madrid. He had just purchased the series Presos políticos en la España contemporánea by the controversial artist Santiago Sierra, and wanted to show his recent acquisition to his friends. But when he returned to gallerist Helga de Alvear’s booth later, he was shocked to find the series had been removed from display. Apparently the president of the convention center authority had requested the gallery take down the portraits of jailed Catalan separatists lest they offend the political sensibilities of an increasingly conservative collecting class in the Spanish capital. 

“I started searching online for artworks that had been censored worldwide,” Benet explained at the museum’s press preview, “but I didn’t think ‘oh one day I’ll have this building in Eixample and open a museum.’” The gorgeous setting itself was also important. Designed by Enric Sagnier as a private residence for a wealthy family in the beginning of the 20th century, it was abandoned during Spain’s brutal civil war, a conflict which resulted in the persecution, exile, or extermination of much of Barcelona’s intelligentsia after the city’s reluctant fall to the fascist army. Ironically, it later served as a Catholic school—a fact that made me chuckle while viewing many of the blasphemous artworks it now houses. 

It’s also located steps away from the grand avenues where the contemporary right wing had staged massive marches to protest a proposal to grant amnesty to the Catalan separatists just days before. Looking out the window, and remembering those car bomb scares of my youth, I was alarmed to see there was still curbside parking directly in front of the museum. At the reception on the sunny terrace—surrounded by throngs of Catalan anti-fascist politicians, high-profile journalists, and the world’s most controversial artists—I caught myself anxiously scanning the surrounding rooftops for snipers. 

Andres Serrano, "Piss Christ"
Zoulikha Bouabdellah, "Silence Rouge et Bleu" (foreground) and Jani Leinonen, "McJesus" (background)
Now more than ever, we need art that questions, provokes, and sometimes offends.
Michael Anthony Farley

In an even slightly less tense climate, it would’ve been the kind of event I would unabashedly, absolutely fucking relish with zero inhibitions. I am a proud veteran of the Culture Wars! A Robert Maplethorpe print of a big ol’ floppy dick is the only flag to which I pledge allegiance! Andres Serrano’s infamous “Piss Christ” is the only crucifix before which I genuflect! This museum should be the Mecca to which I make pilgrimage, not with fear, but a smug sense of self-satisfaction at my evolved inability to take offense at artworks! 

And so I found myself suddenly, strangely embarrassed by my paranoia as soon as I had the opportunity to stand in front of the aforementioned “Piss Christ” (in person!) for the first time in my life. In the dim lighting of the gallery, it was an unexpectedly charismatic, comforting experience. The Ilfochrome print of a cheap plastic crucifix submerged in the artist’s own urine seemed to glow like a resilient beacon in the storm of absurd controversy that has surrounded it since the late 1980s—when right-wing politicians led by North Carolina senator Jesse Helms used it as justification for defunding America’s National Endowment for the Arts. (Nice to know elected officials were busy addressing the most clearly pressing issues of the day instead of, you know, the AIDS epidemic or the genocide in Somalia or the existential threat of climate change back when it was a relatively easier bud to nip!)

In the decades since, “Piss Christ” has provoked countless death threats to gallerists, curators, and the artist, as well as numerous security incidents wherever it’s been exhibited. Standing in front of this imagebarely larger than a square meterit all seemed suddenly quite laughable. Fittingly, Serrano’s plastic Christ has now ascended to a pantheon of martyrs. Perusing that floor of The Museu de l’Art Prohibit I encountered Terri O’Neill’s long-hidden “Raquel Welch on the Cross” alongside a crucified Ronald McDonald by Jani Leinonen—a sculpture that was removed from an Israeli museum after it elicited a firebomb attack. A nearby painting of the Virgin Mary by Charo Corrales still bears a gash from a knife-wielding visitor who slashed the canvas after Spain’s right-wing political parties VOX and PP demanded it be removed from a Cordoba museum because it appeared she might be masturbating. 

Charro Corrales, "Con flores a Maria"
Fabián Cháirez,“La Revolución”

“We conserved the slash,” the museum’s Artistic Director Carles Guerra explained as we toured the museum, to remind viewers “religious people don’t tolerate these kinds of images.” 

It’s hung next to Fabián Cháirez’s painting “La Revolución,” which depicts Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata as a gay pinup model and caused angry homophobic mobs to storm the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. I was overjoyed to finally meet the artist at the opening and tell him that about half of my friends in Mexico City have selfies with the giant mural version that now adorns a campy gay bar a few blocks from Bellas Artes. Some even have tattoos! 

These kinds of anecdotes are part of what makes this museum so special, even if at times I found the slideshow projections of scandalous headlines next to the artworks a bit distracting in their over-the-top theatricality. The effect threatens to cheapen the shock value of a few artworks to something akin to the “selfie museums” proliferating around Barcelona and so many other tourist-saturated cities. But if casual art viewers can come away with a bit of context, it might prove to be a successful strategy for making the headier artworks here more accessible to a general public. 

Artwork by Muhamad Ansi, Sabri Al Qurashi, Abdualmalik Abud, who have all been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay
Josephine Meckseper, "Untitled (Flag)" with Yoshua Okon, "Freedom Fries: Naturaleza Muerta" (background)
Illma Gore, "Make America Great Again"

Tatxo Benet himself confessed, “the history and explanations of the artwork might have more importance than the artwork itself,” in reference to some of the more amateur or “unskilled”—but incredibly poignant—pieces in the collection. 

I still find myself thinking about a collection of naïve drawings and paintings made by detainees at Guantanamo Bay, the majority of which are shockingly mundane or innocent—a palm tree or seascape—but whose display somehow elicited a Pentagon decree that all prisoner artwork be incinerated. To see these displayed mere meters away from censored “pornographic” or “scandalous” prints by canonical figures such as Picasso and Goya was especially moving. What exactly is it about a sketch of a prison cell interior that represents a threat to national security? Land of the Free! Home of the Brave! 

Indeed, there’s a whole gallery devoted to artworks banned in the US—Josephine Meckseper’s flag that politicians had expelled from an exhibition at The University of Kansas, Illma Gore’s portraits of nude Donald Trump censored by Facebook and threatened by lawsuits, David Wojnarowicz’s film “A Fire in My Belly” that the Catholic League successfully lobbied to have removed from the National Portrait Gallery—that beg the question as to why Americans don’t defend their First Amendment rights as fervently as the dumb one guaranteed by the Second. 

Larissa Sansour, "Nation Estate"

In his welcome speech, Benet stated that he foresaw the Museu de l’Art Prohibit serving as “an important institution for the immediate future.” I don’t think that statement fully sunk in for me until watching the world’s latest round of censorship and #canceling these past couple of weeks. 

I almost missed what might just be the most relevant artwork on display at the opening: Larissa Sansour’s nine-minute video “Nation Estate,” discreetly tucked-away in a corner gallery towards the rear of the museum. The Palestinian artist (who I discovered is a MICA alumna!) won the 2011 Elysée art prize, leading to Lacoste withdrawing their sponsorship and the eventual cancellation of the award. The clothing brand claimed the enigmatic video failed to adhere to the theme “joie de vivre” and was therefore disqualified. 

“Nation Estate” depicts a young woman navigating a series of futuristic interiors evocative of the sleek Copenhagen subway or a high-rise hotel. But on closer inspection, the floors are labeled with the names of Palestinian cities or generic landscapes such as “olive grove”. She prepares food from minimalist packaging that might come from a high-end meal delivery service or be emergency rations. It’s ambiguously dystopian—is this a future Palestine that’s developed into a wealthy skyscraper city such as Dubai or Doha? Or a massive vertical prison? It ends with the expressionless protagonist cradling her pregnant belly as she gazes out from the tower towards a view of Jerusalem that could be a window or a projection. It’s a profoundly thought-provoking piece about a region with some of the world’s highest birth rates and population densities but least certain future. 

I’m glad this video has found a home here at the Museu de l’Art Prohibit, where at least its future is secure—relatively safe on this island of misfit toys, drawings both profane and mundane, incendiary sculptures, and vandalized paintings. Now more than ever, we need art that questions, provokes, and sometimes offends. 

My second-favorite gender-neutral art museum toilet (the first being John Waters’ at the BMA, obviously)
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