The Play of the Unmentionable

An Installation by Joseph Kosuth

A graphic look at how public and institutional ideas of obscenity have changed throughout history

“This book captures a great exhibition; it is new evidence of the museum’s potential to act as a brilliant provocateur, an inciter of unthinkable thoughts, an essential constructor of mindful lives.” —Museum News

At the height of the controversy over government funding for “obscene” works of art, internationally renowned conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth created “The Brooklyn Museum Collection: The Play of the Unmentionable,” an exhibit about censorship at The Brooklyn Museum. His installation, one of the best-attended, most widely reviewed (and most controversial) of the year, juxtaposed works of art from throughout history that had been deemed politically, religiously, or sexually objectionable, with statements about the role of art in society by writers as diverse as Oscar Wilde, Adolf Hitler, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Using artworks drawn from the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum, “The Play of the Unmentionable” showed graphically how public and institutional ideas of obscenity and artistic value have changed throughout history—and continue to change today.

This handsome book documents the exhibit with twenty-one pages of color and more than a hundred duotone photographs, and is designed to recapture the installation’s juxtapositions of artworks and texts. In a major essay, art historian David Freedberg offers a detailed analysis of the installation, setting it in both the context of America’s “culture wars” of the late 1980s, and of Kosuth’s career. The Brooklyn Museum’s director, Robert Buck, and its curator of contemporary art, Charlotta Kotick, also added critical perspectives; and Kosuth himself articulately describes his objectives in an interview. The result is a book that both represents the work of a major contemporary artist and boldly steps into the middle of the most controversial arguments about art and culture in America today.