WHOSE SPEECH? OUR SPEECH!
The Queens Theatre In The Park Gallery Devises A Promising Solution To Censorship Accusation "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." (The First Amendment of the United States Constitution)
On Monday January 29, 2001 Brooklyn-based visual artist Jonathan Allen removed his work, We Get What We Deserve, from an exhibition at the Queens Theater In The Park Gallery to protest what he claimed was censorship by Jeffrey Rosenstock, Producing Director of the theater. Rosenstock removed Allen's piece, W2001 W2002 W2003 W2004 without the consent of Allen or the curators, Ari Hiroshige and Robyn Love, Friday January 26, 2001, five days after the exhibition opened. This sparked vigorous debates between all of the key players that lead to a rare and unique compromise. In September 2001 Allen will exhibit both the original pieces as well as new ones that will investigate issues of freedom of speech and censorship. Not an un-hot topic lately. My only hope is that arts administrators, funders, politicians, pundits, and zealots will learn from this solution when faced with contested artworks provided the show actually goes off without further controversy.
Censorship is alive and well in New York City. Yes, in the city that is promoted by doyens of the artworld as being the international center of culture. Yes, in a city that for more than a century has attracted artists, free thinkers, radicals, and myriad regular folk searching for the permissive and electric streets of Gotham. Yes, in the city that was home at one time or another to such passionate promoters and upholders of free speech as Emma Goldman, Murray Kempton, Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg, Woody Guthrie, Lenny Bruce, William Kunstler, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Karen Finley. Yes, in the city most often known simply as the City, as if there are no others, at least none as cosmopolitan as it.
We can blame it on our proto-Fascist Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The Mayor who brought us quality-of-life laws (decorative nomenclature for police state), the Disneyfication of Time Square, and who in 2000 was awarded a Lifetime Muzzle Award by the National Campaign for Freedom of Speech for his ongoing censorship jihad. His crowning example of exercising his authority was the barring of most public eventsstarting with World AIDS Dayfrom being held on the steps of City Hall, which had long been a forum for such expressive gatherings. During his last years in office he is really starting to resemble a B-movie totalitarian dictator contemplating eternity from inside his bunker while watching rerun after rerun of his favorite film and authoritarian influence, The Godfather Trilogy. It is truly Entarte Künst all over again. And though I caricaturize him, I'm worried. In the face of dozens of failed, though highly publicized, attempts to stifle free speech Giuliani has finally conceived a truly sinister master plan, a decency committee dedicated to weeding out objectionable artworks at city-funded museums. Some of those on the committee are Rabbi Shea Hecht, Curtis Sliwa, shock-jock and founder of the Guardian Angels, former Nixon White House lawyer Leonard Garment, and the only member known to be part of the official artworld, however loosely applied, Larry Herbert, chairmen of Pantone and member of the State Council of the Arts.
Last year Giuliani threatened to close the Brooklyn Museum of Art because he found Chris Ofili's painting, the Holy Virgin Mary, a sick, disgusting example of Catholic bashing. Ofili depicted Mary with African features and attached a clump of elephant dung as well as magazine cutouts of female genitalia. Earlier this year Giuliani again threatened to cut funding to the Brooklyn Museum over a photograph by Renee Cox. She recreated the Last Supper and depicted Jesus as a nude African-American woman. Most recently he decried an installation by husband-and-wife art team Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry exhibited at the Bronx Museum of Art. The works are police emergency call boxes with speakers that project stories told by Bronx residents' experience of police brutality and mistreatment. Giuliani denounced the work on his weekly radio show in his usual bullying and prosaic tone: "This is propaganda not art." Can't you see him pounding his fist on the podium? Did I say Entarte Künst, or what? Someone should also do him a favor and point out the not-irony in the similarity of class and ethnicity of those artists, artworks, and subjects whom he chooses to challenge.
"We're living in Giuliani New York, and I think Rosenstock's decision to remove my work was influenced, or at least validated by the Mayor's actions," stated Allen. While it might be true to claim that Giuliani has created a censorship-friendly mood in the city, I don't think he's the source of all the cases in the city. He, among others, is really just riding the fascist and anarcho-capitalist zeitgeist in America. "Censorship definitely is on the rise. We are seeing more and more cases everyday," says Svetlana Mintcheva, Arts Advocacy Coordinator for the National Coalition Against Censorship. Mintcheva stated that since the Mapplethorpe/Helms controversy in the late 1980s many groups organized to preserve free speech in the arts. Yet most have closed after the 1998 Supreme Court decision in NEA v. Finley. It upheld that the NEA take "into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of American public." Many in the burgeoning anti-censorship movement felt they were defeated; let down by the nation's highest court dedicated to upholding and interpreting the nuances of the constitution.
The foundation upon which these cavalier moves to stifle free speech are erected is the often unspoken national motto: "What's good for General Motors (i.e., big business) is good for America!" During the last ten years many American cities have developed their own versions of quality-of-life laws. In Philadelphia for example it's known as the broken-windows-theory. The idea being that if you arrest people for breaking windows it will either deter them from committing burglary, for example, or at least the police will have more people fingerprinted, therefore being easier to track. If the streets are cleaner, there are less homeless, less graffiti. More business will move into the neighborhoods, we'll all have jobs, and we can all go about our shopping. We so strongly hope that trickle-down economics will work that many of us are willing to sacrifice some of our civil rights. We often don't even realize we're sacrificing our civil rights. Notice how multi-culti and egalitarian the NEA v. Finley decision reads; yet under closer scrutiny it is just more stifling of free speech. It is an old tactic: co-opt the language, the code, of the enemy.
The merger, acquisition, and consolidation of media corporations blows wind into the anarcho-capitalist zeitgeist that provides fresh air for censorship. Only nine multi-national conglomeratesDisney, AOL-Time Warner, News Corporation, Viacom, Seagram, Sony, Liberty, Bertelsmann, and General Electricown most of the world's media. This is a major threat to culture and democracy. It is even worse than the thuggish censorship of Mayor Giuliani because it's invisible and we're told it's just a natural by-product of free enterprise. In other words, loosing some rights is the collateral damage for a cleaner, friendlier, more prosperous nation. Truthfully, access to outlets of expression is being stripped from the hands of the citizens. Not only are we loosing access to free speech, but it's almost as if we want to speak, we will have to pay or own the publishing company, the airwaves, movie screens, or the exhibition hall. And anything done or shown in the increasingly shrinking public space will be seen as litter or compromising our quality-of-life. President-select Bush, who was put into office by an overwhelmingly conservative Supreme Court, will do little to expose these contradictions or to curb any tide that is pulling our bill of rights out to sea. Need we mention that this Wasp-Tony Corleone has assembled a cabinet that could be described as an anti-free speech mob. In toto it smells bad, it spells fight.
The Allen Controversy
The situation between Allen and the Queens Theater In The Park Gallery is a terrific case study of censorship as well as how to reach a healthy resolution. Allen pulled out of the show because he felt that the rules of the game had been changed after the game was in its final quarter. He'd already worked with two curators for many months, the works were de-facto approved by Hiroshige and Love, and the pieces were installed. "I wanted to show this work. I played by the rules. I tried to work and compromise with Jeffrey (Rosenstock). I drew the line at censorship," Allen claimed.
Rosenstock countered, "It wasn't a work that was worthy of all the other programs going on in the theatre. The artwork should reflect the caliber of what's on the stage." He went on to claim his act was not censorship but one of helpful curating. He thought that W2001 W2002 W 2003 W2004 was too ambiguous whereas We Get What We Deserve is clearly provocative. Its message is clear.
The exhibition, New Inside Spoon, was site-specific projects by Allen and artist Guillermo Creus. It consisted of four pieces intended to relate to the space, two by Allen and two by Creus (who did not back out of the show in solidarity with Allen). Crues related to the physical space directly. Allen's site-specificity was more oblique, yet probably more accurate. The pieces specifically critiqued presidential candidates, associating them to some of their major funders and equating the candidates to commodities. Allen's works related to the fiscal concerns of the theater, to funding for both government and art agencies. Most clearly the relationship is between Allen's use of corporate logos and the placement of similar logos in the theaters promotional posters which uncannily hung directly opposite and next to We Get What We Deserve.
Allen's metier is drawing although sometimes he employs collage or allows appropriated media into his works. The piece removed, W2001 W2002 W 2003 W2004, is a group of four portraits of President Bush covered by drawings on glass of woman's shoes. It hung downstairs in a lounge area of the theatre. The drawing allowed to remain on exhibition, We Get What We Deserve, is a 1.5' x 60' depiction of the most recent U.S. Presidential election. It hung right outside the theatre doors in the main lobby. Allen explained, "I wanted to show how these candidates are just products. That's why I juxtaposed portraits of the presidential candidates with corporate logos and shoes. The shoes represent products, fashion, and advertising, which is what I think the candidates are. The corporate logos were selected to show which companies support a particular candidate."
Actually Allen's work was censored even further. Rosenstock may not have removed We Get What We Deserve but the full piece was not allowed to be shown. Originally it was attended to wrap around an entire wall of the theater but only half of it was exhibited. Again, physical space constraints and aesthetic issues were noted. I wonder why these issues were not resolved at an earlier stage of production, at least before installation?
Neither Love nor Hiroshige agreed with Rosenstock's removal of Allen's piece. Yet, both agree that the piece does have aesthetic as well as installation problems that could have been resolved. "By the theater making this grave error, it alienated Jonathan (Allen) and angered Ari Hiroshige , though not intentionally. We missed an opportunity for compromise," commented Love.
According to Allen, Hiroshige had worked with the artists since July 2000. He believes as well as Love and Rosenstock that during the last six months these alleged aesthetic and installation issues should have been worked out. Hiroshige declined to comment.
Love claims to empathize with Allen's decision to remove his work from the exhibition yet does not believe that Rosenstock's action clearly represents censorship. "What is really at issue is the lack of communication. Jeffrey (Rosenstock) felt like he should have been involved in deciding what artwork was approved," Love stated. Neither Love nor Hiroshige defended Allen because Rosenstock has the final say of what is in the theatre.
Alan Gilbert, Senior Editor of FYI, a quarterly arts newsletter published by the New York Foundation for the Arts, offered the following comment on the situation. "Aesthetic issues are always political. And while without seeing the piece or the rest of the show, I can't definitely say whether or not what occurred with Allen's piece is outright censorship, it's certainly unconventional to take down a piece after it's already been hung. It seems to imagine a potentially negative audience response to the work, as opposed to trusting the initial curatorial process."
I suspect Rosenstock's primary fear was that the general theatre audience would be offended because they would be subjected to Allen's controversial and ambiguous art when they just intended to spend a night at the theatre.
Mintcheva stated, "I think the resolution that they created is wonderful. The point is to exhibit the work. If you go into court then the work will not be shown. The goal now is to mobilize public opinion, to instigate a discussion of these issues. To raise awareness."
Following the original incident a New York Times reporter allegedly contacted Rosenstock to inquire about the incident. Apparently fearing being outed in the paper of record, Rosenstock retained legal counsel. Simultaneously Allen retained legal counsel and planned to officially accuse Rosenstock of violating First Amendment rights. After several weeks of discussions Allen accepted Rosenstock's offer to mount a new exhibition.
Love plans to work more closely with Allen preparing the exhibition. She proposed the investigation and critique of freedom of speech and site-specificity as themes, or tacks for the new show. Rosenstock has agreed to leave all curatorial decisions to Love. She believes the silver lining to the controversy is the policies of exhibiting visual artwork at the theater will be more formal in the future.
Love commented, "The theatre admits that it made a mistake, it actually was a very bad mistake. We're doing the best thing that it can do to rectify it."
For the next show Allen plans to outline the events of last January. He will frame the events as a violation of freedom of speech yet investigate Rosenstock's rebuttal. Allen says, "I'm researching the history of censorship, I'm reading Art Censorship: A Chronology of Proscribed and Prescribed Art by Jane Clapp. Half the show will be about censorship, the other half will expand the ideas of the earlier show to be more relevant."
Allen believes his biggest compromise is timing, and in that sense Rosenstock succeeded in censoring him in spite of the offer for the new show. "Yes the original pieces will be in the show, but it won't be the original show because it is not relevant to the time, to current events. The election is over." He intends in altering and adding to the original exhibition in such a way as to make the new show just as relevant and controversial as he hoped the first one was. He's making connections to the larger issue of ownership and consolidation within media. He says, "We're in a new age, the lines are being drawn as to who has the right to speak, and what viewpoints are being reported. Omission is the new way to silence artists. The media just doesn't report on the events. They're leaving out the voice of dissent."
"This climate makes many artists self-censor themselves. Not only when exhibiting but even more importantly when trying to obtain funding," commented Mintcheva.
Allen is not a stranger to this
sort of controversy. When he was in high school in Atlanta a national debate
raged over the use of the Confederate flag within Georgia's state flag. He
drew a comic comparing Georgia's flag to Nazi Germany's flag. It instigated
a heated debate at his school that ostracized him as being a traitor to his
state and culture. The current controversy has emboldened Allen. "If you make
a work that makes someone want to remove it it's encouraging, it gives me
permission to push the message even further. It's a challenge to me to see
what I can create next. This is one of my first shows in New York. I want
to do the best that I can but stay true to what I have always tried to do,"
--for Clamor July/August 2001