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Art Culture

Is it just a bunch of wank?

CW: Sexual Content

A student at the ECA has been the latest victim in a long history of artistic censorship: that is one way of looking at the controversy that has recently arisen at the Edinburgh College of Art. An alternative narrative could see the dispute between Maciek Kosc (he/him) and the school as a layered issue of consent, in which many participants play a part, from the artist and the curator to the establishment and the spectator. 

For those unaware, on the 9th of February at the ECA, the second year exhibition opened, in which students were able to open their works up to public opinion and, as in this case, criticism. Included in the exhibition was an untitled triptych by Maciek Kosc, depicting, on one, an image of a female nude and, on the other two, images of male arousal, one depicting oral sex and one depicting masturbation. Following the opening night, in which Maciek Kosc’s work was intentionally positioned next to that of Daniel Ironside (they/them), Kosc’s work was moved, without his permission, to a location with less footfall. The decision was not made by the exhibition’s curation and installation teams, both of which are comprised of students, but one enacted by the school itself. 

In its place blossomed an organic response to the disputes this event provoked, including the initial response from Daniel Ironside, which read “See the uncensored work upstairs, moved (without the prior notification of the artist) from here because god forbid nudity be seen in an art school”. A response to this, which came in the form of another printed statement sellotaped beneath Daniel’s comment, saw an anonymous responder accuse the prior opinion of gaslighting observers into perceiving what they dubbed to be the “pornographic” content of Kosc’s piece as mere “nudity”. And so, from these A4 pages arose a lively and important conversation about censorship, artistic autonomy, establishment authority, gaslighting and consent, making this one of the most significant ECA shows to date as a result.

Maciej Kość, Untitled, 2022, mixed media on canvas, 120 x 100cm.

Daniel’s initial statement (which I recommend you read), entitled ‘Just a Bunch of Wank; a Response to ECA’s Curatorial Intervention’ positioned censorship as the prime issue in the debate, as they describe the threat of discouraging free depictions that may follow in the wake of the controversy as “bizarre and backwards”, prompting the question, “are ECA students now expected to censor themselves if they want the most popular spots in exhibitions…?” I would challenge this view, as I consider it arguable that the surrounding dissension has not reduced optics on Kosc’s piece (although that may be the case literally), as the hysteria that has circled the event has definitely got the attention of the student body. After all, there is no bad press, and it worked for Koons with Made in Heaven, right?  

Now, that comparison is not meant to be reductive, for, as Kosc explained to me, “Although the imagery of these paintings is some may say ‘shocking’, I would hate for them to be put in the mundane category of ‘shock art’”. Daniel supports this view, making it clear that the inclusion of these explicit images was not a publicity stunt. The paintings actually have a very rich and meaningful provenance, referencing the underground tattoo scene in Warsaw through multi-media. As the artist described to me, “The paintings combine forms abstracted from a style of spray painting popular within the tattoo community in Warsaw with pornographic imagery. This imagery manifests itself in the form of sloppily glued on, distorted posters. Their role is to evoke distasteful advertisements that can be found by the entrance of an underground rave. Made soggy by rain, they often peel away.”

I don’t know if it was an internalisation of my conservative British upbringing or an immediately feminist reception, that is well versed in the use of nudity in art, that made my immediate reaction to the painting one of shock and discomfort. At the same time, though, I appreciate a degree of expressive freedom, as well as a need for open conversations about sex and sexuality to manifest themselves across society in many forms, including, if not especially, in art. And, after all, haven’t we, the generation oversaturated with content, become reliant upon the engagement of our shock receptors as an indicator of something’s value? But, is that bad? Whilst avoiding sounding like a Tumblr quote, didn’t Cesay A. Cruz tell us that art is meant to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable?

I am not indicating that Ironside and Kosc are disturbed, or reducing the experiences of uncomfortable viewers under the citation that they are the problem, trapped in a habitual zone of comfort. As someone who has been subjected to their fair share of nonconsensual penises in my time, I didn’t appreciate recreating the experience between tutorials in my school corridor, and I think that that reception is valid. It is also one that has been accepted by Kosc and Ironside, as exemplified by the nuances added to the latter’s second statement, ‘It’s Still a Bunch of Wank, And Here’s Why’. As is often the case with issues of consent, there are many layers epitomised by this example. Without trying to reduce it to case-study status, it does provide an interesting opportunity to review these layers, particularly as a result of the school setting. There is the consent given by the ECA to hang Kosc’s work in its designated spot, a consent that was later revoked following the piece’s initial reception. There is Kosc’s consent (or lack thereof) for the piece’s movement, as well as his consenting to Ironside’s publication of a statement, and this publication, for that matter. But there is also the consent of the viewer, something that has often gone unconsidered. Whilst public exhibitions come with a warning of the included content, viewers will most often be attracted to those exhibitions to see a particular artist or piece, and so will be aware of the explicit content. For example, if you were lucky enough to visit Emin’s joint exhibition with Munch at the RA last year, there is a fair assumption of viewer discretion. But this isn’t the case with Kosc, as his work is in a school, disabling the student body from giving, or withholding, consent. 

And so, how can this be resolved? In the exhibition that followed, entitled ‘Did You Miss Me?’, Ironside used a QR code to direct viewers to content that was clearly labelled explicit. Whilst they declare that this was not in an act of appeasement, nor was it a perfect solution to the problem the controversy has highlighted, it does, at least, enable a degree of sensitivity.

But does this simultaneously undermine the integrity of the work? The choice of medium for a piece is crucial, as illustrated by the specificity of Kosc’s choices in evoking a certain atmosphere, and so does this digitalisation deduct from the original for the sake of sensitive “snowflakes” uncomfortable with explicit content? Should artists be granted a “get out of jail free” pass if they can justify their work, or should their work be taken elsewhere if it is deemed unacceptable in the eyes of an institution? When I asked Daniel about the hypocrisy of criticising the practices and regulations of an institution yet remaining within it, their initial reaction was: “how long have you got?”. In summary, though, they highlighted the importance of the optics these institutions provide, presenting the fact that remaining within an institution didn’t naturally equate to perpetuating their desires, nor does it have to undermine the integrity of a work, as an authentic and true critique of something can come from within it.

And so, whilst the students have a right to create such critiques, the school maintains an equal right to free speech, just as the students do. But, just because they had a right to appease complaints through action, it doesn’t make the removal of Kosc’s work necessarily ethically right. In fact, by conforming to the viewer’s levels of comfort, they have actively and nonconsensual crossed the boundaries of the artist. Whilst I’m sure the problem will continue to divide opinions, what is undeniable is the ripple effect it has had, finally initiating conversations that are long overdue regarding just how to accomplish viewer discretion and consent in public exhibitions at the ECA.

Maciej Kość, Untitled, 2022, mixed media on canvas, 120 x 100cm.
Maciej Kość, Untitled, 2022, mixed media on canvas, 120 x 100cm.