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Editors note: This speech was delivered at
the 31st commencement of the School of Visual Arts at Radio City Music
Hall on May 10, 2006.
New York is a city of contradictions. Everyone knows that it is
irredeemably blue, but its last four mayoral elections have been won by
Republicans. It is the financial capital of the United States, but its
budget is controlled by the legislature in Albany. Some would like it to
be the 51st state, while others think it so corrupt that they would
like to cut it off from the mainland and allowed to float out to sea. It
is still the capital of the art world and a shining beacon of artistic
expression. It is also a city where the whims of one individual can
dictate what is appropriate for many.
Five years ago, then-mayor Giuliani, in an effort to revive his flagging
poll numbers caused primarily because of his clumsy handling of his
divorce, decided that the best way to reverse his decline was to attack
the arts. He set up what was commonly known as his Decency Commission,
staffed by such luminaries as Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian
Angels, who admitted that he did not know much about art, but believed
he was qualified to serve on that commission because as he said, he
“knows the difference between a Michelob and an Michelangelo;” Raul L.
Felder, the Mayor’s divorce lawyer, whose conduct had been criticized by
the judge overseeing the Mayor’s divorce proceedings; and Leonard
Garment, noted apologist for Richard Nixon.
To his credit, Mayor Bloomberg abolished the commission soon after he
was sworn in. But the desire to censor, to control, is something which
runs deep in the psyche of the powerful and appears in various guises
from time to time. As Justice Stewart has said, “Censorship reflects
society's lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an
authoritarian regime.” And authoritarian is the best way to describe the
ham-handed antics of a self-described bureaucrat from Montreal, namely,
Julius Spiegel, the parks commissioner of the Borough of Brooklyn.
The Parks Department recently proposed a rule which would govern New
York City’s public art program which it administers. The rule called for
a ban on art that fails to “demonstrates a proper respect for public
morals, or conduct or that includes material that is political, sexual
or religious in nature.”
As near as I can tell, that leaves out most of what you have studied
these past four years. If the Italian government were to offer to loan
the city any of its masterpieces, Michelangelo’s David, for example or
any of the religious paintings of the Renaissance, it would appear that
under this rule the city would have to decline. Although the Parks
Department, as a result of the efforts of the College Art Association
and the National Coalition against Censorship, did not adopt this rule,
its spirit is alive and well in the actions of commissioner Spiegel.
Each year, the MFA candidates at Brooklyn College are required to
exhibit their work at the War Memorial at Cadman Plaza. This year’s show
was called Plan B. Given the climate not an auspicious name. According
to press accounts, the opening was well attended, and both the president
and provost of Brooklyn College reported that they enjoyed the show.
At 3:30 p.m. the following day, the memorial supervisor, accompanied by a
locksmith, asked the three students who were monitoring the show to
leave, had the locksmith change the locks, and closed the show.
A spokesperson for commissioner Spiegel, Warner Johnston, said that the
Commissioner made the decision on his own without conferring with other
members of the administration. When reached by Maria Rand, the Brooklyn
College Gallery Director, Commissioner Spiegel said he had received
complaints about two or three works containing sexual content. It should
be obvious from this response that Mr. Spiegel had not seen the show,
that the number of complaints were few, and that he could not name the
offending works. But it is generally the case that those who censor, do
not look. As Mark Twain noted, “Nature knows no indecencies; man invents
The response of Brooklyn College was not encouraging. After discussions
with city officials, the College’s provost, Roberta S. Mathews said, “In
keeping with the public nature of the space, as well as its position as
an honored war memorial, Brooklyn College has respectfully decided to
move the entire student exhibit to our campus. Brooklyn College has a
long tradition of educating fine artists. Throughout, the administration
of the college has supported our students’ rights to freedom of
artistic expression. We are proud to display our student art here at the
college.” Only Orwellian obfuscation can describe a successful opening
in a public space followed by a craven retreat to campus as a triumph
for freedom of speech.
Courage seems in short supply. At a minimum, one would have hoped that
the college would have decried the confiscation of private property
without the benefit of due process. Instead, what we are offered is lip
service in support of artistic expression without the college engaging
its formidable counsel’s office in support of its students. The only
praise to be bestowed on a public official goes to an unnamed Park’s
Department employee who had the good sense to admit one of the students
to the exhibition on Friday so that she could feed Daisy, her white pet
rat, who was part of her installation—a third grade classroom in which
the rat was a symbol of bad behavior.
On Monday morning, three trucks and a squad of men appeared to remove
the show. Although the students were taken by surprise, as no one had
had the grace or courtesy to tell them that their work was to be taken
hostage, again, they has the good sense to video tape the destruction of
their work and to warn the workmen that they could be held liable. This
information seems to have halted the removal for a few hours. However,
by the end of the day, the show had been removed. Some of the pieces
have been damaged beyond repair. Daisy was placed in the back of a van.
Her whereabouts are unknown at present.
We still do not know what so offended the Parks Department, but one
surmises that it might have been a watercolor of a male torso with a
narrative about a sexual encounter between two men, one of whom used the
computer name Dick Cheney. This is all rather like what happened at the
School of the Art Institute a decade and a half ago when a painting
entitled “Mirth and Girth,” a satirical depiction of the deceased Mayor
Washington, was arrested. After the painting was punished (in other
words damaged) the charges were dismissed.
In an effort to placate the students they have been offered a gallery
space in Dumbo. The space would be provided by real estate developer
David Walentas whose developments have made it impossible for struggling
artists to afford to live in Dumbo any longer. Yet another irony.
During all of this Mayor Bloomberg has been either silent or blandly
supportive of the Parks Department’s view of what is suitable for the
public. It has not been his finest hour, but is reminiscent of his
behavior during the Republican National Convention in 2004.
To their credit the students have not accepted this situation with
equanimity. Norman Siegel, the former head of the New York Civil
Liberties Union, has agreed to take the students’ case and will file a
federal suit later this week alleging that the students rights to free
speech have been violated. They have also established a blog at: plancensored.blogspot.com.
I urge you to lend your support to their cause because it is really all
of ours. As the arch-conservative Edmund Burke has noted: “All that is
necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
Is design inherently unreasonable? Momus goes looking for the answer in a capital of culture.
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