Wagner Schwartz's La Bête at Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo. Courtesy: https://videopress.com/v/Y5dwGqbr

A Naked Performance in São Paulo is Sparking Violent Reactions

The hysterical online response to a naked performance by Brazilian dancer Wagner Schwartz has kicked off a moral panic with disturbing implications, and fists are flying.

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Oct 16 2017, 4:08pm

Wagner Schwartz's La Bête at Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo. Courtesy: https://videopress.com/v/Y5dwGqbr

Brazil's Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo (MAM) would probably have gotten away scot-free with its recent presentation of dancer and choreographer Wagner Schwartz's La Bête (The Beast) as part of the 35th Panorama of Brazilian Art, had a four-year-old girl not entered the scene. Schwartz's concept involved inviting viewers to maneuver his unclothed body, and the preschooler duly prodded the artist as he lay face-up on a pedestal. (Her mother accompanied her, in an effort to demonstrate that this was okay.) The four-year old crawled around at a distance from the supine artist and pulled one of his fingers as though to test whether he was asleep—or maybe dead. She then made her way down to his feet, while the girl's mother touched one of Schwartz's shins. Finally, the girl put both of her hands on Schwartz's other shin, then wiggled his foot—maintaining eye contact with her mom—before crawling away.

Inevitably, other viewers caught all this on camera and, just as inevitably, someone posted a video online. Members of the Movimento Brasil Livre (MBL), a right-wing group that recently expended considerable effort denouncing Queermuseu at the Santander Cultural Center in Porto Alegre for zoophilia, among other outlandish things, predictably mobilized its ranks against the show, calling the museum irresponsible and arguing that the exhibition was pornographic and encouraged pedophilia. Then the video went viral, and despite being rather a dull watch, it's now been removed from most sites as a result of this misplaced outrage.

The exhibition in which La Bête was included had been open for a mere four days when, on September 30, an assault on MAM employees by some 20 demonstrators took place, generating yet more coverage for this frankly unremarkable work, the intention of which has now been thoroughly lost in the kerfuffle. This included the museum's press officer, who had nothing to do with the content or selection of Schwartz's work, being branded a pedophile and suffering a physical attack. Said officer now also has a large public mess to clean up; as of October 13, a petition denouncing La Bête had more than 100,000 signatories. Meanwhile, a series of recent corruption scandals in Brazil have led some to label this controversy—justified or manufactured—as a mere distraction.

Sarah Valdez is a New York-based writer and editor.

The 35th Panorama of Brazilian Art remains on view at the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo (MAM) through December 17.