Find one or two recent photographs in the public domain that you consider to be “controversial” or to transgress social barriers. Write a short entry in your learning log (up to 500 words) about why you feel it is controversial.
Looking at pictures by Joel Peter Witkin could never be described as a pleasant experience and yet they are very clearly described as art. This living artist frequently uses dead body parts in collages and displays (photographed in Mexico because of contravention of the US laws).
His works have been labelled exploitative and have sometimes shocked public opinion.
I can accept that his work is art and is indeed quite spectacularly presented, using his own very detailed and innovative ideas but I cannot “like” it.
For this exercise I have used one of his pictures of a living person which is equally as controversial in its own way.
It is entitled “Sanitarium” and is of a naked woman being treated, I suspect, with colonic lavage in the sanitarium.:
This work famously inspired Alexander McQueen in his exhibition “Spring / Summer 2001 Collection”.
The collection was displayed in a warehouse set up as a mock sanitarium, and the finale of the show was to display a woman (Michelle Olley), significantly overweight and naked, in the same pose as in Witkin’s “Sanitarium”.
To me the whole idea of using a Joel Peter Witkin pose in the show was pure sensationalism, especially as this woman was surrounded by stick thin, anorexic models with the latest designs draped over them. It was a gimmick but what it did achieve was to make people think beyond the show, to research Witkin and to start to debate the issues which he presents. Does that make it a success? I suppose it does. Looking at reviews of the show and reviews of Witkin’s work, many contradictions were apparent.
“I think Joel Peter Witkin shows life as it is, rotting at the point of birth, and McQueen puts pretty girls into ugly frocks.” Rose Taylor.
“I like McQueen but I really don’t like Joel Peter Witkin. To use dead body parts for the pictures? Seriously? Sick”. Evgenii Potapenko, Paris, France.
“This is arguably, one of the most important fashion shows ever, up there with Marc Jacobs infamous Spring 93′ Perry Ellis grunge collection.” Fleetwitchmac.
What seems to be unanimous is the respect which McQueen received for putting this show on (16 years ago).
But there are many examples of respect for Witkin’s work as shown by the article in the New York Times shown here
The opening line is “The calculated madness of Joel Peter Witkin’s photographs conveys a sense of 19th century horror:”
Like the dream works of symbolist painter Gustave Moreau:
In my opinion the paintings of Gustave Moreau are much gentler and, of that era much more literal. https://www.wikiart.org/en/gustave-moreau
In conclusion, I cannot love the work of Joel Peter Witkin, I can only acknowledge that the art world has benefitted from being exposed to his pictures. He is a prolific producer of art and one cannot imagine what motivates him to consistently generate such vast quantities of horrific material. I cannot find one single piece of his art which I would be confident in displaying to the ordinary people of this world.