Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Banality of Totalitarianism

I have repeatedly commented on the censorship of art over the years. First because I was brought up to believe that the voices of others were important opportunities to re-examine our own ideas and second because I myself will someday die an artist.

I rarely whine about First Amendment rights. This country has long hated and denounced the rights to free speech whenever such a thing is exercised. Yes, the Bill of Rights is saluted with a grudgingly perfunctory grunt of acknowledgment like something the founding father's shoved down our collective throats. No one in authority ever wants this right to be exercised as it detracts from its value as a historical artifact whose platitude works so well on designer doormats.

And conservative detractors of free speech have nullified the amendment with extreme prejudice by proclaiming it a privilege or a crime. Yes, by all means, exercise your right to think and say something we might disagree with and you risk your job and ability to find another or maybe we'll simply sue you for liable, slander, or whatever. There is no need for substance to such remedies but we can quickly drain your resources in endless specious court proceedings that will destroy your life.

So I won't bore anyone with the idea that artist's have a right to free speech because that's like asking them to wear a tee shirt with a bullseye on it saying, Shoot Me!

But today, the Courant offered a story called The Art of Argument by Stephanie Summers that informs us that a piece of art by George Jacobi was removed from the Mansfield Community Center because it offended at least one veteran.

This link displays the artwork as covered by the Courant story.

Here's some of what the Courant story says about the removal,
When Air Force veteran David Kloss looked at George Jacobi's photo collage that included images of an American flag, he saw an anti-war statement inappropriate for a family-oriented town facility. He took it to the Mansfield Community Center staff, who took the piece down to quell any controversy.

The move backfired.

"We have an ongoing debate about the censorship of art for moral reasons," Jacobi said, "but political censorship in a public place is unacceptable."

Jacobi declined to replace the artwork with another piece and took a second piece down as well.

Two sculptures thought to be too sexual also were removed, but that artist, Eda Easton, did not contest the decision.

The main focus, however, was on the Jacobi photo collage. Seventeen citizens, including some of the 5,400 community center members, objected in writing to the town about removing the artwork and called for a procedural clarification.

"We believe that it is wrong that one person have the power to determine what the community should or should not see. These decisions are too important to be decided on an ad hoc basis by any town employee who happens to be the recipient of a complaint," the letter read.

Monday night, the town council unanimously voted to order a policy be drafted for choosing artwork for public buildings, except for schools, and dealing with complaints. That task will go to the arts advisory committee, which selects the art work for display at the center.

As director of parks and recreation, Curt Vincente oversees the center. He said he made the decision to take the photo collage down after a couple of complaints because of "the potential for offending veterans we should have the utmost respect for in the community."

"I don't believe that this facility should be a conduit for that public debate," he said, adding that there was plenty of non-controversial art out there. He said he partly considered the risk of losing memberships over the matter.

In comments to the council Monday night, Kloss said that although Jacobi's work was well done, its use of the American flag was disturbing. Kloss' own photographs of a father-daughter backpacking trip he organized through the rec center were declined for display.

"I was very surprised that the photograph was removed," he said last week, adding that he did not believe it was a result of his complaint alone and that the issue was overblown.

The 12- by 48-inch work, titled "Local American History," strips together segments from three photographs: a display of orange flags at a local church yard that marked the Americans killed in Iraq; an American flag; and gravestones at a local cemetery.

"Someone complains and they take down the artwork. Is that censorship?" asked Kloss, a local surgeon who likes to photograph nature.

Yes, said Jacobi and others on that side of the debate. "Regardless of the interpretation of my artwork ... the soldiers represented in it died to protect our right of expression, and our right to interpret anything in our own individual way," he said.

Jacobi said even Norman Rockwell's iconic small-town America art dealt with the theme of war.

An exhibit of Jacobi's work opened Friday at Windham Hospital, although he is not including the flag piece.
and furthermore,
Easton, an artist since 1958 who has done shows in New York and Europe, was more amused than angry when a mother imagined a penis in one of her sculptures and insisted the artwork be removed. Vincente said other adults and children commented on the suggestive nature of two of Easton's pieces.

"That's the first time that's happened to me," Easton said. "I'm used to Europe, and I'm used to the human body being indeed a part of life, and I think a certain amount of sensuousness is a part of art."

Easton's sculptures have been displayed at the University of Chicago, in Boston and New York, and at the Haus der Kunst museum in Munich. A self-described loner, she taught for 25 years and still takes in students because "it's good to be asked uncomfortable questions."

Still, the German-born Easton sees the local dispute as a serious matter, her family having fled Nazi Germany in 1938. "You have to think, I'm an immigrant from Germany ... and so I can see what can happen if government overreacts."

Artists and town officials alike doubt a policy will remove risk of controversy in the future, but they hope it will make the process more transparent for the public and artists alike.

"I don't necessarily think we're going to prevent this from happening again, but what we'll have is a process for handling these situations," Hart said. "That's what we want."

Curt Vincente's argument requires discussion though.
"I don't believe that this facility should be a conduit for that public debate," he said, adding that there was plenty of non-controversial art out there."
As a member and artist-in-waiting for a show at the Community Center, I found this latest exhibit exhilarating because it actually featured real artists. For far too many shows, children's artwork and very provincial pieces lined the walls as though our community were devoid of grasping anything more visual than close-up photography of flowers or drawings of horses or provincial scrapbook adventures.

Art is not about public debate. It is about personal introspection. There is no debate society that I'm aware of at the community center and the fact that it is run by fear instead of pride is just one disturbing aspect of this event. The strength of having a community center is not just to keep the community physically fit but to keep it mentally fit as well. The most shocking thing Mansfield could do would be to support the arts, the artists, and the country by providing a laissez-faire attitude about artists and their art. This is not to say that salacious material should be shown, merely that artist's who express opinions should not be silenced.

But what truly disturbs me above and beyond the pedestrian banality of removing the work is that someone who fought for this country was the trigger. Not a day goes by when someone in government justifies brutal killing, torture, and war as the means to protect our freedoms and to spread those freedoms across the globe. And not a day goes by when these same soldiers and politicians who wrap themselves in self-glorifying patriotism don't use their political clout to censor, intimidate, or shout-down the god-given rights we profess to be fighting for and protecting.

My father was a Marine who served in the Pacific theater during World War II and I grew up learning The Marine's Hymn that ends with the line "if the Army or the Navy ever look on heaven's scenes, they will find the streets are guarded by United States Marines". It's a liberal assertion. It transcends petty politics. The silent graves of soldier's who died fighting for these liberties died unconditionally for this stuff. They didn't sit around saying, "But what if my neighbor objects to that opinion - geezus, maybe Hitler and Hirohito are right! Society really must be controlled."

Whenever I hear that an artist, political activist, or peaceful assembly is being attacked or marginalized or demonized by someone in this country I keep hoping that someday a soldier will put on a dusty uniform and stand guard to serve notice that THIS, THIS is what we protect and fight for and swear our honor and pledge our allegiance to.



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