The Controversy

The Controversy
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In 1966, Tuchman included Back Seat Dodge ’38 in a mid-career solo exhibition of forty-six influential works at the newly established Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Exhibition catalogue). Prior to the opening, Tuchman realized that the content of Kienholz’s works might cause public concern, and he discussed the issue with then-museum director Richard Brown and the museum’s Board of Trustees. Letters, such as the one from trustee Robert Sherwood to Brown, illustrate that the board wholly supported the museum staff’s authority to make judgments about exhibition content and urged Tuchman to proceed with the exhibition (Letter from Sherwood).

As Tuchman anticipated, Back Seat Dodge ‘38 indeed prompted controversy (Play audio). Just three days before the public opening, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors (led by Warren M. Dorn) declared the work “pornographic” and demanded that LACMA remove it from the exhibition. When the museum staff and trustees refused, Dorn threatened to close down the exhibition and cancel funding for the entire institution. Despite the fact that the majority of the supervisors admitted that they had not even seen the work or visited the exhibition, they unanimously supported Dorn in his efforts ( “L.A. Art Uproar”, Supervisors view exhibition, Kienholz Press Conference ).

The controversy played out publicly in local newspaper headlines (“L.A. Art Uproar”,"Remove this Exhibition…”, “For Adults Only…” and “Comentario Grafico”). The Board of Supervisors argued that the museum was supported by public funds and that the county had the right to withhold funding if it found the works to be morally objectionable. LACMA’s Board of Trustees maintained its united front against censoring the exhibition. During the 1960s, the social and political values in the U.S. had begun to shift drastically, and the Supreme Court was hearing several obscenity cases at the time, which fueled the controversy. Locally, it was an election year; Dorn was running for governor under a “Clean the Slate” banner, and appeared to be using this event to raise his political profile. The entire incident eventually made national headlines, as seen in the detailed press scrapbooks in LACMA’s library holdings.

Finally, the Board of Supervisors agreed to a compromise: the work would remain in the exhibition on the condition that the car door would be closed (“It’s awful!...” and “L.A.’s Unseen Art Exhibit”). If a visitor over the age of eighteen requested to view it with the door open, a museum guard could accommodate the request—but only if no minors were present in the gallery. Ironically, Kienholz later explained that the Dodge door was originally intended to remain closed during exhibition, and then only opened “by the viewer so that there’s a surprise each time you open it,” further emphasizing the voyeuristic nature of the work.

The controversy intrigued the public, and long lines of visitors formed to see Back Seat Dodge ’38 for themselves (“Public Sees Art Exhibition…”). Most visitors requested that the door be opened, and overall the reactions proved mild. The museum did, however, receive varied responses—some irate letters and curbside protestors along with an amusing poem written by several docents (Poem, Protesters outside LACMA, Letter to Maurice Tuchman).
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