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Sex and art scandals: Have the French gone soft?

The collapsed structure of John McCarthy's controversial 'Christmas tree'
The collapsed structure of John McCarthy's controversial 'Christmas tree' Martin Bureau / AFP

France’s art scene in 2014 was marked by an upsurge of online attacks against sexually suggestive artworks, culminating in the destruction of an inflatable structure in Paris that looked like a giant sex toy.

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The installation, a 24-metre-high inflatable sculpture in Paris’s glitzy Place Vendôme, drew angry comments from critics who said the artwork looked like an anal plug. Created by John McCarthy, an American artist, the structure was officially presented as a Christmas tree on October 16, in advance of FIAC, Paris’s contemporary art fair.

But a viral campaign on social networks claimed that Paris had been “humiliated” by the infamous “butt plug”, while right-leaning political organisations slammed the use of public funds for what they regarded as an insult to the city’s residents.

John McCarthy's "Christmas tree"
John McCarthy's "Christmas tree"

John McCarthy’s “Christmas tree” was felled two days after its installation by angry Parisians who detached the sculpture from its air source. Despite official statements vowing to re-erect the installation in the name of “artistic freedom”, the collapsed structure was simply removed from Place Vendôme. To art buffs, it was a sign that the new French art scene is about to be engulfed by a new wave of puritanism.

Puritan revolt

The prudish atmosphere of 2014 was also captured by another Twitterstorm over a promotional video announcing the Musée d’Orsay’s new exhibition about the Marquis de Sade. The trailer released on October 8 showed naked men and women in the middle of an orgy spelling out “SADE” on the floor. After four days of complaints, YouTube banned the video from being viewed by minors due to its sexual nature.

“I understand that the video can shock but, at the same time, the subject of the exhibition is touchy. When you go to see an exhibition about Sade, you don’t expect something conventional”, said a representative from the museum.

In fact, the exhibition itself is far more traditional than the trailer suggests. It features established artists such as Eugène Delacroix, Edgar Degas, Auguste Rodin, and Pablo Picasso to illustrate the French libertine’s philosophy beyond his well-known explicit sexual scenes.

Musée d'Orsay's trailer video about the Sade exhibition

Censorship by anonymous letters

Paris’s annual photography festival, Le Mois de la Photo, was hit by censorship in a more serious way. A photograph of a mother and her young daughter, both nude, embracing and cuddling together, was removed on October 30 from a gallery exhibition after seven anonymous letters accused the artwork of inciting incest and pedophilia.

The gallerist and director of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) came under attack for caving in and censoring Diane Ducruet’s photograph before the exhibition’s opening reception.

“I still don’t understand how a gallerist and the director of an institution that is supposed to promote artists’ work could have (…) on simple anonymous requests, and without really knowing my past and current work, decided to remove my work”, Ducruet told French news website Rue89.

This series of controversies led French journalist and writer Denis Michelis to claim that the country’s art scene in 2014 had been damaged by a “conservative revolution”. It would not be the first time that censorship rears its ugly head in France. Under the repressive regime of the Second Empire (1852-1870), there were high-profile prosecutions to ban some of the century’s greatest literary masterpieces - Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. Back then, the legal base to ban sensitive artworks was already “outrage aux bonnes moeurs” – public indecency.
 

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