Sculpture incites debate: Is it art or obscenity?

One of the more curious aspects of controversial — or, perhaps, just bare-breasted — art, is this: People want to view it.

Which, amid a flurry of publicity, likely accounts for an uptick in attendance this week at the Overland Park Arboretum & Botanical Gardens on West 179th Street in the southern reaches of Johnson County.

Since November, the 300-acre nature garden has displayed along one of it wooded walking paths 11 life-size bronze sculptures that were created and donated to the arboretum by Chinese sculptors.

One of them, titled “Accept or Reject” by artist Yu Chang, presents the disjointed body of a young, bare-breasted woman, one thin arm extended to snap a photo of herself.

The sculpture so shocked a Stilwell mother, Joanne Hughes, who came upon it with her children in tow, that since May 9 she has been leading a campaign to have it hauled off to a more “appropriate venue” where children can’t be inadvertently exposed.

Calls to Overland Park’s mayor, city manager, council members, arboretum officials and others gave her no satisfaction.

“Not one of the people I talked to saw anything inappropriate about having that in front of children,” Hughes said this week. No plans to move the sculpture; no plans even to talk about moving the sculpture.

But the flap, along with an online petition initiated by Hughes, has done much to heighten interest in the arboretum. The garden, which gets about 130,000 visitors a year, keeps only loose numbers. Not everyone signs in as a visitor, but anecdotally, officials said, the place has been far busier than normal.

”We had a group of middle-aged men out there last Friday looking at it,” said Overland Park’s communications director Sean Reilly. “I can tell you that that’s not the typical demographic we see there. Some people have come to the visitors’ center asking just to see that piece.”

This week, the city tried to address Hughes’ concerns by posting two signs at the entrances to the walking path that include a caution: “Some pieces include a display of the human body and parental guidance is encouraged.”

Unappeased, Hughes has joined forces with the Kansas and Missouri chapter of the American Family Association, whose national organization is based in Tupelo, Miss. In 1990, the association successfully worked to get a grand jury impaneled to indict Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center for displaying what it considered obscene photographs by the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. A jury disagreed and acquitted the museum.

Starting Tuesday, Hughes and American Family local director Phillip Cosby plan to gather about 3,000 signatures from Overland Park residents to compel a Johnson County District Court judge to convene a grand jury to decide whether the arboretum should be indicted on obscenity charges. Regionally, the association in the past has used similar tactics to bring obscenity indictments against a number of businesses that sell pornographic videos or devices. A handful of those businesses did change their practices.

This is the first time the local group has taken on the issue of a public sculpture.

“What they’re calling art is what we’re saying is obscenity,” Cosby said. “They left us no recourse but to let the courts decide. It is the people’s call.”

Johnson County District Attorney Stephen Howe said he could not comment on any action by American Family. But in general, he said, proving something is “obscene” from a legal standpoint is very difficult.

By statute, Howe said, something can be deemed “obscene” only if it is shown to lack any serious literary, educational, artistic or scientific value.

“In general, across the country, with obscenity cases,” Howe said, “there is a very high standard to meet. The courts have always weighed very strongly on the side of freedom of speech.”

Hughes, who moved to the area about four years ago, said that over the past couple of weeks she has received both support and condemnation. Some people have called her “moron” and “idiot” and told her to “go back to your hole.”

“I’m not paying too much attention,” she said.

Her fight, she said, is to protect young children such as her own, although she conceded that while on their walk in the arboretum, her daughters, ages 4 and 2, never saw the sculpture.

“I saw it first,” said Hughes, who had been walking with her husband. “They were busy looking for snails on the ground. We ushered them past. But as a mom of two girls, especially, I don’t want them to have to see something like that.”

Hughes said that from her point of view, the depiction of a girl with naked breasts snapping a photo of herself seemed to glorify “sexting,” the practice of texting sexually provocative photos.

“With the problem of youth sexting right now in our culture,” she said, “I don’t even think we need to go there.”

The outdoor sculpture is not accompanied by any explanation of the artist’s intent, but published accounts of the sculpture insist that it was the opposite of Hughes’ interpretation. Rather than promoting sexting, the sculpture is meant to point out the danger of digital technology and social media — how in fragmenting individuals into separate parts, including their sexuality, people can lose part of their humanity and individuality. The fact that the woman in the sculpture has no head underscores this point.

“But that requires explanation,” Hughes said. “They don’t have anyone explaining that. There is no explanation given at the location. And besides, why should we have to explain that to a 4- or 5-year-old?”

No matter what the artist’s intent, she thinks the sculpture is, on the whole, “too mature for young eyes” and has the potential to expose children to difficult and unexpected images and force parents into conversations with children that they may not be ready to have.

“I didn’t take the time to understand the artist’s message,” Hughes said. “I was really thinking, ‘Good grief, what is that doing here?’ It is vulgar. It is provocative. I thought it was glorifying sexting. For me, it is very offensive.”

Hughes said she is not asking for the piece to be destroyed or hidden from public view. She thinks it needs to be in a museum or other more adult venue.

She rejects any argument that likens the arboretum sculpture to, say, naked figures from Greek or Roman antiquity or the works of Michelangelo or Rodin.

“I have seen the statue of David in person,” Hughes said of Michelangelo’s masterpiece. “It is beautiful. He’s also not taking a picture of his penis. There is a difference there. The message is different.”

Sarah VanLanduyt, executive director of the Arts Council of Johnson County, said she think the arboretum sculpture is doing exactly what public art is meant to do.

“The artwork is not meant to be pornographic. It is meant to spark this kind of conversation,” she said. “It’s meant to cultivate a very interesting dialogue. And, although I didn’t live here at the time, I understand there was a great bit of controversy when the sky sculptures were installed on top of Bartle Hall.”

As there was with the giant shuttlecocks on the lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

“People didn’t like those, either,” VanLanduyt said. “For good or bad, that dialogue is happening.”

Both the shuttlecocks and Bartle Hall with its sculptures are now common subjects on Kansas City postcards.

Hughes has strong, like-minded supporters. Her online petition gathered more than 2,400 names, although Reilly, the Overland Park spokesman, said that while some were residents of Overland Park, many others were from Olathe and Lenexa, and some came from 20 other states across the country, from Nebraska to Connecticut, Texas to North Dakota.

“There is an appropriate age,” Hughes said. “We need to be careful and err on the side of caution when it comes to kids.”

Before the publicity about the sculpture, Reilly said, the arboretum had received a handful of official complaints about the sculpture in the six months it has been on display.

“Less than 10,” Reilly said.

The Chinese sculptures eventually are to be moved to an outdoor international sculpture garden being planned on acreage that will expand the arboretum.

Hughes said she did not find any of the other sculptures offensive, although she did not find them to be particularly uplifting.

“I had a very somber feeling when I went through,” she said. “I go to the arboretum to kind of get peace and quiet.”

As to what Hughes did enjoy: “I liked the little birdhouses,” she said.