Following widespread criticism of a performance at Brazil’s Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo (MAM), conservatives have launched a wave of protests against institutions across the country that arts professionals are calling an attack on culture.
At the opening of the thirty-fifth Panorama of Brazilian Art on Tuesday, September 26, MAM presented La Bête, by dancer and choreographer Wagner Schwartz, during which he lay naked in front of an audience and allowed spectators to manipulate his body. At some point during the fifty-minute piece, which imitates a work from Lygia Clark’s series “Bichos” (Beasts), a woman and her young child approached the artist and touched his arms and legs.
A video of the girl, who appears to be around five years old, participating in the performance was posted online and went viral. The footage sparked a strong backlash on social media with people labeling the work “pornography” and alleging that it “incites pedophilia.” An online petition calling for the museum’s closure had 86,000 signatures as of Tuesday, October 10. However, MAM curator Felipe Chaimovich told Lauren Cavalli of artforum.com that the museum will not shut down the exhibition, which runs until December 17.
The controversy escalated on September 30, when several of the museum’s staff were attacked during a demonstration against the performance. According to the Brazilian weekly Veja, the museum’s press officer, Roberta Montanari, was punched by a demonstrator and called a “pedophile.” Other MAM employees were also physically and verbally assaulted by around twenty people, who had gathered outside the institution. That same day, São Paulo mayor João Doria released a video denouncing the piece: “The exhibition held at MAM cannot, in the name of [artistic] freedom, present to the public a libidinous scene that stimulates a condemned artificial relation and is absolutely improper.”
Members of the Movimento Brasil Livre (MBL) seem to be behind most of the antagonism. The right-wing group also spoke out against the “Queermuseu” exhibition that opened at the Santander Cultural Center in Porto Alegre in early August. The venue was accused of supporting pedophilia, zoophilia, and the sexualization of children. The criticisms led the center to close the show early and issue an apology to those “who felt offended by any artwork included in the display.”
The group is making similar allegations against MAM. During a demonstration that occurred on September 29, one day prior to MBL’s harassment of museum members, Bol Notícias reported that people held banners reading: “They’re eroticizing your children.” In response, the museum released a statement defending the performance, which claimed that the work “has no erotic content.” It also said that viewers were informed of the nudity in advance.
On October 2, the São Paulo public prosecutor’s office launched an investigation and has yet to determine whether MAM, the artist, or the child’s mother has violated the Child and Adolescent Statute (ECA), legislation that was passed in 1990 to protect children’s rights. In a statement provided to O Globo, the office declared that it was not interested in “curtailing creative rights, freedom, and the exhibition of works of art,” but that it would look into whether the museum’s efforts to communicate with visitors about the content of the piece were adequate. In the meantime, officials have asked social media platforms such as YouTube and Facebook to remove videos of the performance.
Culture minister Sérgio Sá Leitão also echoed the criticism of La Bête, declaring that the work is in “clear noncompliance” with the statue and that he would not let his children, who are eight and twelve years old, to attend the exhibition. He also met with parliamentarians and other politicians representing conservative and religious groups who wanted to address MAM’s exhibition, as well as the “Queermuseu” show, and propose new censorship laws.
In addition, Rio de Janeiro mayor Marcelo Crivella, who also serves as a Bishop of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, an evangelical church founded by his uncle Edir Macedo in 1977, is trying to thwart Museu de Arte Moderna (MAR) director Evandro Salles’s negotiations to bring “Queermuseu” to the city. The curator of the exhibition, Gaudêncio Fidelis, is expected to take legal action against Crivella.
Among the thousands who have been rallying to the São Paulo museum’s defense are MAR and the Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand (MASP)—both institutions that were mistakenly targeted by protesters of the exhibition—artist Adriana Varejão; actresses Fernanda Montenegro and Maria Ribeiro; and the musician Caetano Veloso, whose wife, the music and film producer Paula Lavigne, recently began a movement to push back against right-wing attacks.
The 342 Artes movement claims that the developing controversy isn’t even about art. Responding to an inquiry from artforum.com, they argue that Brazilian art institutions have become embroiled in MBL’s strategy “to divert attention from a series of corruption scandals” by spreading “fake news” about cultural organizations. They are also supposedly being targeted because of their role as advocates for women’s rights and environmental protection laws. 342 Artes is currently working to prevent Brazil’s congress from passing new censorship laws and any legislation that may restrict artistic freedom.