How explicit should public art get?

Censorship in metro stations and other public places reveal a limit to how far were prepared to be challenged by art

The Vienna tourist board had long earmarked 2018 for its year-long retrospective of Viennese modernism. Unexpectedly, of all the artworks it could have advertised it with Gustav Klimts tender Kiss; Venus in the Grotto by Koloman Moser it chose a selection of characteristically baleful, spindly nudes by Egon Schiele.

We thought it was so stark, so strong to work with in advertising, says spokeswoman Helena Hartlauer one drizzly afternoon at Caf Museum, a traditional coffeehouse in Vienna where Schiele, Klimt and their peers were regulars more than 100 years ago. And then we were made to cover most of it up.

Advertising regulators in Germany, the UK and US all refused to display the figures male and female uncensored. A source close to the decision-making of Transport for London expressed concern that the depiction of genitals, though artistic, could be at odds with public wellbeing.

The decisions demonstrated not only Schieles continued capacity to shock, 108 years after his nudes were removed from an exhibition for their obscene nature, but also the unseen ceiling on artistic expression in shared spaces.

Public art is usually spoken of approvingly, as is art that pushes boundaries. But is there a limit to how challenged were prepared to be in places like airports and train stations, where everyone has to go?
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After two weeks of back-and-forth about how much Schieles nudes needed to be covered, the Viennese tourist board had the idea to reframe the rejection as an opportunity. It resubmitted the posters with an apology splashed across Schieles bare bodies: SORRY, 100 years old but still too daring today. The accompanying hashtag, #ToArtItsFreedom, referenced the slogan of the Viennese secession: To every age its art, to art its freedom.

We figured its the exact same discussion as 100 years ago, says Hartlauer. Its art, its not pornographic. But apparently some people are still offended.

Of course in this case Schieles art was also advertising, and therefore in London was held to the same standards as any other material displayed on TfLs network. With 31 million trips recorded every day, TfL says it must be considerate of its large and diverse audience.

From its recent censorship of both a womans bare back and an irreverent funeral campaign, TfL seems to err on the side of caution. (German authorities agreed to display Schieles female nude with torso uncovered; TfL didnt.) Surely a distinction can be made between a masterpiece in oil on canvas and Gary Lineker with his kit off?

slider embed of London and Cologne/Hamburg versions
Slide to see the different versions of the poster displayed in the UK and Germany.

A spokeswoman referred Guardian Cities to TfLs advertising policy, which says that though it does not seek to be a censor, its network is largely closed: unlike TV, online and print media, people cannot simply switch off or turn a page if an advertisement offends or upsets them.

This is a crucial distinction with other public expressions of artistic nudity: as functional, shared spaces, transport hubs have to try to accommodate everyone.

In Stockholm, where the metro doubles as the worlds longest art gallery, with works by 150 artists displayed in 90 of the 110 stations, the line can be harder to draw. Last year The Night Garden, a series of 26 enlarged felt-pen sketches of birds, cats, trees and even naked men by the graphic artist Liv Strmquist, known for her feminist and satirical perspective, was accepted for exhibition at Slussen station. Three of the 26 images captured particular attention: those showing women with visible menstrual blood. One, of an ice skater in repose with a red stain on her leotard, was captioned Its Alright (Im Only Bleeding).

Images of it went viral, further cementing the citys progressive reputation. Strmquist says an American tourist told her theyd made a special trip to Slussen station just to see it. This would never happen in the US, they told her. She says: They think its typical for Sweden because there has been so much feminist progress.

Cartoon of a menstruating woman by the comic artist Liv Strmquist at Slussen station, defaced by black paint. Photograph: Janet Carr

In truth, the cartoons were polarising even in Stockholm. Feedback to the transport company Storstockholms Lokaltrafik (SL) ranged from the best youve ever done and it makes me happy each time to vulgar, dirty and provocative and repulsive to both children and adults.

People felt that this is a sign that our society is going in the right direction, and a sign that everything is falling apart, says Strmquist, laughing.

Nearly all of the 30-odd responses formally logged by SL were critical of the menstruating characters. Most were from men, and many expressed concern about the potential toll on children and Swedens international reputation. The menstruating ice skater was defaced in one station with black paint, as was cartoonist Kolbeinn Karlssons bathhouse diary series of homoerotic male nudes at Fridhemsplan station.

The far-right populist Sweden Democrats (who saw an increase in support in the recent election) even politicised her work in a meme, juxtaposing one of her images with an oil painting of boats: their preferred interpretation of public art.

Screengrab of a meme apparently made by the Sweden Democrats. The central caption reads: Art in public transport, and points to Strmquists picture saying Today and to a painting of a harbour scene saying With our politics. Photograph: Liv Strmquist

Strmquist admits she was surprised when SL accepted The Night Garden, and praises it for having the guts to put it up. You very rarely see menstrual blood out in a public space, she says. I was expecting them to say This is too provocative, but they didnt.

Martina Viklund, a spokeswoman for SL, says the metros artworks are decided by a panel with few guiding criteria beyond meeting a certain professional standard.

Art is art, she says. Its an expression, a way of thinking it would be wrong to limit artists and not give them this chance. She believes the criticism of Strmquists cartoon reflects a taboo over a natural part of life, and demonstrates the need for more provocative public art so we can start the discussion.

To that, some might ask whether their commute is the time or the place. Many complainants said Strmquists cartoons would suit a museum or places where people actually want to look at it, to quote one but not the metro, where more than 1 million trips are recorded each day.

Yet Stockholm metro bills itself as one gigantic art gallery: did Strmquist and Karlsson push that function of the space too far?

Of course I understand [the argument] that I need to go on this metro, maybe I dont want to look at this, Viklund says. But its still art. I guess its hard to please everyone. (For art that does please everyone, look to Dsseldorfs U-Bahn, where it almost passes for engineering.)

Back in Vienna, Hartlaeur says the tourist boards campaign was more successful precisely because of TfLs cover-up. She says it sparked a global debate about artistic censorship, double standards for advertising, the appropriateness of the human body and the need for shared spaces to be inclusive of all.

A handpainted mural of a work by Egon Schiele in New York. Photograph: David Plakke for Vienna Tourist Board

When the board extended the campaign to New York, it was censored on the subway; the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has form for rejecting ads depicting sexual or excretory activities.

But the city made one notable exception.

A full-frontal female nude (risqu even for Schiele, and not used elsewhere in the advertising campaign) was shown uncensored, several metres high, on the side of a building simply because it was a handpainted mural.

The double standard baffles Hartlauer. In the subway, it was the same restrictions that had applied in Europe, but with the mural it was suddenly possible. She adds, with some satisfaction: And wed chosen the most explicit one.

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