The well-known “Maja incident” took place at a branch of Pennsylvania State University in Schuylkill, Pennsylvania in 1991 (Anderson, Garoian, 1994, p. 33). While many art censorship debates have focused on public reactions against religious desecrations, this is an example of a debate in which the focus was not centered explicitly on the visual images of the art in question, but the subjective opinions one can place on art when one does not adequately understand the context.
The Maja controversy surrounded a reproduction of Goya’s Maja desnuda, which hung in a classroom used by Professor Nancy Stumhofer, who taught English and Women’s Studies. The image is of a nude woman lounging on a couch, staring directly at the viewer. Along with the Goya image, there were four others as well, which included an image by the Mannerist artist Bronzino, depicting a well-dressed, wealthy young man; a reproduction of Raphael’s The Madonna of the Chair; Perugino’s Crucifixion with Virgin and Saints and a landscape by van Ruisdael. Combined, Stumhofer felt the works “presented an image that was uncomfortable for women”, as it “stereotyped women as mothers and sex objects while portraying men as professionals (Centre Daily Times, 20 November 1991)” (Anderson, Garoian, 1994, p. 34).
Under university policy the paintings were able to classify as sexual harassment, as it is defined as “anything that makes people uncomfortable about sexual issues” (Foster, 1994, p. 63). Bonnie Ortiz, the director of Pennsylvania States’s Affirmative Action Office, also supported Stumhofer’s claim, which prompted the university to move all five images to a reading room in the student center. A computer-printed sign reading “Gallery” was placed on the door, “to forewarn people that there is art in the room” (Anderson, Garoian, 1994, p. 35).
In his article “Art’s Enemies: Censors to the Right of Me, Censors to the Left of Me” (1994) Steven Dublin argues that Stumhofer decontextualized the work by removing it from the centuries-old European tradition it was created in, which was a time in which women were often objectified (p. 52). Also, by not considering the fact that the image was part of a pair, with the nude Maja thought to represent profane love while the clothed Maja represents sacred love, a theme common throughout art history, Stumhofer further refuses to view the image in its intended context (p. 52). Rather than viewing the piece objectively and considering the historical context in which it was made, Stumhofer subscribed her own thoughts and beliefs onto not only the Goya image, but the entire group of images as well, creating an environment in which art is viewed as sexual harassment rather than an educational opportunity.
Anderson, Albert A., and Charles R. Garoian. “Exposed and Expelled: The “Maja” Controversy Revisited.” Journal of Aesthetic Education 28.4 (1994): 33-35. Print.
Dubin, Steven C. “Art’s Enemies: Censors to the Right of Me, Censors to the Left of Me.” Journal of Aesthetic Education 28.4 (1994): 44-54. Print.
Foster, Kenneth J. “Art, Culture, and Administration.” Journal of Aesthetic Education 28.4 (1994): 62-65. Print.