What is the use of art if it is censored? What are the limits of political correctness in exhibition halls? Can a work be art and obscenity at the same time?
These kinds of questions are not new. Hundreds of volumes in the corridors of art history are devoted to the “moral” and “ethical” debate in art curating, ever since Plato’s discourses against “imitative art.”
“Art teaches us how to disrupt, in order to create a new public space,” Gediminas Urbonas said in an interview with Peter Sizikes. Urbonas is the director of the MIT Program in Art, Culture and Technology and co-editor of Public Space: Lost and Found? “The point of art is not scaling up answers, but to tackle painful questions, to provoke and mobilize humanity to find the answers themselves, or to create a space of possibility where the truth can be found.”
However, for San Antonio’s City Attorney Andy Segovia and for the city’s Department of Arts and Culture, this is not entirely true.
The unanimous decision of both was to censure the performance art video by queer Latinx performer Xandra Ibarra Spictacle II: La Tortillera, selected for the Centro de Artes’ exhibition entitled XicanX: New Visions.
Ibarra’s 2014 piece is a four-minute video in which the artist, who appears as her alter-ego La Chica Boom, dresses in the hostess and waitress outfits often associated with Hispanic female employees in the United States, and she performs a burlesque-like scene where she “dances around a table, takes two tortillas out of her pocket, lays them on a table, and then removes her panties and places them on the tortillas,” as described by LGBTQ Nation.
“In the middle of the video, she removes her green dress to reveal her bare buttocks and breasts with nipple tassels. She then removes her apron to reveal a bottle of Tapatia hot sauce dangling from a strap-on harness between her legs. Simulating masturbation, she strokes the bottle and spurts a large amount of hot sauce onto both tortillas, licking some sauce off of her thumb as she defiantly looks into the camera and walks away.”
The piece is part of her Spictacles series that seeks to challenge and restructure the iconography in the discourses of immigration, gender and sexuality, causing an overreaction by government offices that, conversely, provides her argument right.
“My parodic video Spictacle II: La Tortillera (2014) has been legally assessed as ‘obscene content’ by City Attorney Andrew Segovia and has been censored by the city of San Antonio’s Department of Art and Culture,” the artist wrote in a post on Instagram, inviting her supporters to sign the National Coalition Against Censorship’s petition to lift the sanction against her.
“This act of censorship flies in the face of the City of San Antonio’s First Amendment obligations. Government officials cannot arbitrarily impose their prejudices on a curated exhibition,” reads the petition. “Allowing public officials to remove anything having sexual references or content is likely to violate First Amendment principles and generate — as in this case — decisions based on subjective interpretation.”
Because it seems that obscenity is in the eye of the government, and far from the artist’s work.
Ibarra’s work has been exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Bogotá, Colombia, the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, the Popa Gallery in Buenos Aires, New York City, and San Francisco, and continues to be recognized as one of the icons of performance on today’s contemporary scene.
Contrary to what the government may say, Ibarra’s work does not show nudity of any kind, but it seems to unveil the prejudice and ignorance of the abolitionist, contentious, and disruptive languages that are so urgent today.