Spooky curtains at the Overture Center

Overture takes a clumsy approach in taming a feminist art exhibit.

Update, April 26, 2016: Several weeks after the Spooky Boobs Collective's Overture Center exhibit wrapped up, the group released a video that explains the work and captures how it transformed over time. A card at the end addresses the Overture Center's censorship of the exhibit, noting: "The gallery held concerns that this work would offend conservative donors, further proving the need for this work." Because of the controversy, the video goes on to say, "The work became a bigger conversation about feminism and censorship that took on a life of its own outside the gallery walls, despite the efforts made to suppress this dialog." There's even some footage of staff placing curtains over the artwork. Here's the video; the original text of my story about this remains below.

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In The Pattern’s Vicious Influence, on display through March 6 in the Overture Center’s second-floor gallery, Madison feminist art group Spooky Boobs Collective confronts the viewer with 12 of the words and phrases that male-dominated society commonly assigns to women. Displayed in the form of 12 distinct wallpaper patterns, the words range from the insidiously undermining—“crazy”—to the openly hostile—“cunt,” “twat.” Over time the artists, with some controlled help from the public, plan to physically scratch away at the wallpaper patterns, in a symbolic attack on the limiting and minimizing role of this language.

If you visit when there’s not a docent present or when Spooky Boobs isn’t hosting an event around the show, you’ll encounter something that’s not a part of the actual art: ridiculous white curtains hanging over five of the wallpaper patterns. Each has a card pinned to it reading “Explicit language. View at your own risk.” If you want to see wallpaper patterns made of the words “cunt," “pussy," "bull dyke," “slut,” or “twat,” you have to pull back that work’s curtain, and I guess sort of hold it open while viewing the work from an angle, or duck your head all the way under—it’s a bit of a physically awkward viewing experience. It simply gets in the way of what is supposed to be a provocative, confrontational experience.

In a recent interview with WORT, Spooky Boobs members Maggie Snyder and Myszka Lewis said they weren’t happy about the curtains, though they admittedly didn’t rail against them. They also said that, to their knowledge, Overture didn’t receive any complaints about the show between its opening and the curtains going up.

I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable, pat, mealy-mouthed explanation for all this, involving Overture’s duty to balance the social aims of art with the need to run a family-friendly venue and not offend conservative donors. Forgive me for not reaching out on this one, Overture PR folks, but the boilerplate writes itself. I get it. And lest you think I’m making a reflexive complaint about censorship, I don’t necessarily think Overture (a private non-profit that receives some public funds) has an absolute obligation to display the word “cunt” to its patrons just because an artist wants to.

No, this was the wrong call on a whole different level: It fundamentally undermines the confrontational experience the Spooky Boobs artists are clearly trying to create. When a woman is labeled “crazy” or “sensitive” or a “ball and chain” or a “twat,” that is inflicted upon her regardless of her willingness to hear that word or phrase, regardless of whether she’s been forewarned of the “risk” or explicitness involved. The point is that women do not really have the freedom to avoid this explicit language, even in upstanding, family-friendly environments. When you visit The Pattern’s Vicious Influence, you should feel assaulted and a bit powerless in the face of these terms.

Additionally, when an institution signs up to work with a group called Spooky Boobs—and one that openly seeks out controversy as its MO, and by the way the name itself pokes fun at society's fear of confronting the feminine—it loses a bit of its standing to nitpick about what’s appropriate. (PS Overture, the “twat” one is on your website with no warning or concealment anyway.) Then there’s the final irony that the end goal of the art show is to eventually remove the offending words anyway.

The Overture Center does deserve credit here for hosting art shows organized by feminist and social-justice groups. Overture’s three house-run galleries plus the exceptional Watrous Gallery, hosted at Overture but curated by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences Arts and Letters, usually make the place a good one for sampling work from a variety of Wisconsin artists. But Overture needs to be willing to let artists offend when the offense is integral to the work. Without that, its embrace of women and minorities comes off as a half-measure, and that’s far more offensive than wallpaper with the word “pussy" on it.