In the third episode of the Bruno Brief’s series on sexual politics, we explore the history of art, sex and politics in 1970s Providence. We speak with Finn Kirkpatrick, senior staff writer and Bruno Brief producer, about his reporting on the topic, which dives into the police raid of a gallery violating state anti-obscenity laws and what constitutes the boundaries of acceptable artwork.
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Good evening from News Center 12. It looks as though the state will soon have an opportunity to test its tough new anti-obscenity law signed just last week. This afternoon, Providence police raided that controversial art exhibition called “Private Parts,” a show that some people consider obscene.
We took off and went to New York for about a week because we were worried that we were going to be thrown in jail, or, you know, we just didn't know what was gonna happen. And we had no idea that there had been this new obscenity law that had been passed recently.
For the past two weeks, we have been exploring the landscape of sexual politics on Brown’s campus from nudity and sex parties to abortion rights and contraceptives. This week, our focus goes back to 1978. We will be talking about our more artsy neighbors to the west and how a run in with the Providence police sparked a debate over the censorship of art, the morality of pornography and how sex is politicized. I’m Elysee Barakett. This is the Bruno Brief.
So, Finn, you recently wrote about this wild RISD show for The Herald. Where did it all begin?
On April 14, 1978, an ad appeared in the RISD press that said “Private Parts — anonymous of course.” “Private Parts” was an exhibition organized by RISD photography students, and they were denied gallery space on the RISD campus. So they set up shop in the gallery of the Electron Movers, a video art collective composed of former RISD students. The show was intended to be a tongue in cheek parody of pornography, working mostly in photography but other mediums as well. Unbeknownst to the Electron Movers and the artists behind the exhibition, five days before the opening of the gallery, the state of Rhode Island passed an anti-obscenity law, and some saw this exhibition as coming in direct conflict with said law.
The images in the exhibition were provocative while still comical. Images included a rabbit humping a chicken on one end of the spectrum and a middle aged woman watching tv while grabbing the penis of her completely naked husband on the other.
Laurie McDonald was a member of the electron movers, and she can tell you the rest of what happened.
The weekend when the show was being installed, at the close of Sunday when we were locking up, all of a sudden, a Providence policeman appeared at the door, and he said, “I need to come in and look at the show.” And we were just, I don’t know, we were in our mid-20s and we really had never had any kind of encounter with police before. It was quite shocking and upsetting. So we were just kind of hovering at the door while he was walking around looking at the work. And all of a sudden, we heard him start to laugh, which was good because the intention of the show was to be humorous. And so after, I don't know, 10 or 15 minutes, he came back to us and he said, “Look, I don't see anything wrong with this, but I need to tell you that you're going to be raided in the morning by the Providence Police.”
Well, the police did in fact show up on opening day, confiscating 43 pieces in total, most of which were destroyed afterward. The Electron Movers were afraid of the potential legal repercussions and so they all packed up and fled to New York City. Artists involved in the show got in contact with the ACLU, and they were provided with lawyers to defend them in court. The public response towards the police was mostly negative. McDonald filmed the raid as it was going down and asked members of the public what their thoughts on the matter were.
How do you tell what's objectionable? Does it have to turn you on, sir?
As another negative response to these events, Kathie Florsheim, a RISD alumni, penned a scathing letter to then-RISD President Lee Hall about his lack of comment over what had occurred.
In her first letter she wrote, ”Until last week, I had never been ashamed to admit I attended RISD. Now I shudder at the thought simply because you, as president of the school, have refused to take a stand against what the Providence police did to the show at Electron Movers.”
President Hall in response wrote, “I must remind you that the exhibition was not sponsored by Rhode Island School of Design and is a matter for private citizens who are functioning independently as professional artists. I am interested, nonetheless, in your opinion.”
But that wasn’t a good enough answer for Florsheim, who responded back by writing, “You need not remind me that RISD did not sponsor the Private Parts show, as your public statements to that effect made your position very clear. You have intentionally avoided the point of my letter. Whether or not RISD sponsored or was directly or indirectly involved in this show is irrelevant. The First Amendment rights that are at stake here involve the school regardless of its relationship to this show. I think you have betrayed RISD, the community of artists that looks to RISD for leadership and yourself as an artist.”
Finn spoke to Lindsay Caplan, assistant professor of the history of art and architecture, to find out what this incident means in the broader context of art at the time.
When you talk about pornography and you talk about sexuality, you're often talking about artists that are trying to get at a more affective response. That brings up these questions of cultural conventions but nevertheless tries to shock, tries to horrify, tries to push the limits, again, of a public — is antagonistic towards a public. That might not be true in this case, though, like maybe this was a movement that was expressing their own sexuality and their own liberatory imagery and it was actually for an audience that shared that and it was shocking to some people.
Once this case actually reached the courts, it was quickly thrown out by the judge and the raid was deemed unlawful. But the damage had already been done. Much of the artwork was never seen again. In 1985, as the result of a follow-up class-action lawsuit, each artist was awarded $100 as compensation.
This incident is very much a product of its time. The law weaponized sex by deeming it as something dangerous, and now we see a lot more nudity and sexuality in art and media. The fact that photographs taken by a group of RISD students could warrant such a response also shows how powerful art can be. The incident posed questions on whether we should constrain art and artists.
I think it was 1968. The performer Charlotte Mormon performed a piece that she made in collaboration with the artist Nam June Paik called “TV Bra,” and she was topless and she was arrested for nudity. And she was not convicted because she was seen as a kind of unknowing, she was seen as doesn't know what she's doing. And so it was very infantilizing and really insulting, but she doesn't, the conviction doesn't go through but she was arrested for being nude on stage, topless on stage. That is a case in which there were laws about what you could or cannot do in public.
The backlash towards the exhibit in many ways went to further reaffirm the intentions of the exhibition. While McDonald made sure to say that RISD students at the time didn’t have any grand political intentions behind their work, they were very interested in pushing beyond the bounds of what was considered acceptable in art.
The art establishment can be a very conservative institution, and very self-serving, too. So that was part of the motivation, too, is to kind of think outside of the box that has become so institutionalized and so predictable. And those things are all important to us.
Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back next week to talk about sexual assault advocacy on campus.
This episode was produced by Caitlin Carpenter, Liliana Greyf, Finn Kirkpatrick, Katy Pickens, Jacob Smollen and me, Elysee Barakett. If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to subscribe to The Bruno Brief wherever you get your podcasts and leave a review.