“Controversies” at the MCA

Controversies Exhibitions Staff

From the beginning of its history, the MCA has shown art that has taken risks, and occasionally has engendered controversy. The controversies tend to be of two types: people are upset about the art itself being offensive in various ways, or people disagree with the types or intentions of specific exhibitions. Not surprisingly, exhibitions that deal with social issues have tended to draw critiques, including the Art and Soul West Side storefront, a seminal 1968 off-site project of the MCA’s that was a collaboration with an organization called CVL, Inc.—the initials standing for the Conservative Vice Lords, a new incarnation of the Vice Lords, a street gang that ruled West Side streets in the 1960s. While the project concentrated on art and community involvement, the mere thought of a museum associating with a street gang was problematic to some.

Displays that utilize animals consistently draw controversy. In the 1999 exhibition Unfinished History, many MCA visitors were concerned about a taxidermied horse by Maurizio Cattelan. The Italian artist has been a magnet for controversy throughout his career, from his sculpture depicting Pope John Paul II struck by a meteor to his solid gold toilet recently installed at the Guggenheim in New York. The work, Novecento, showed a horse hoisted up in a belly harness, hanging from the ceiling. Disturbingly, his legs had been artificially elongated, making it a macabre and difficult sight.

The 1980s were a time of deep divisions often called “The Culture Wars” that coalesced around Federal funding of the arts, especially NEA funding of the exhibition Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, a traveling exhibition for which MCA was the second venue. Controversy erupted only after the show had moved on to the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati, where the CAC’s director was eventually brought to trial on obscenity charges (and acquitted). Although the MCA showed the photos that some found offensive, the installation was designed in such a way to let more sensitive viewers enjoy Mapplethorpe’s achievements in still life, portraiture, and other genres.

A 2008 Jenny Holzer exhibition, PROTECT PROTECT, was another controversy that never was. Although there were redacted texts about the Iraq War and other sensitive government documents, the exhibition was largely notorious for some of Holzer’s signs, which displayed rapidly flashing lights that can sometimes bring on migraines or other adverse neurological episodes. Fortunately, there were no reports of deleterious effects!

Art & Soul storefront in Lawndale, c. 1968–69. Collection MCA Chicago Library and Archives.

Art & Soul storefront in Lawndale, c. 1968–69. Collection MCA Chicago Library and Archives.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Tyrone, date unknown. Gelatin silver print; sheet: 20 × 24 in. (50.8 × 61 cm), framed: 29 1/8 × 32 1/2 × 2 in. (74 × 82.6 × 5.1 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift from The Howard and Donna Stone Collection, 2002.44. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Tyrone, date unknown. Gelatin silver print; sheet: 20 × 24 in. (50.8 × 61 cm), framed: 29 1/8 × 32 1/2 × 2 in. (74 × 82.6 × 5.1 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift from The Howard and Donna Stone Collection, 2002.44. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

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