Art, Censorship and Courage

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , ethics , Voice

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.

“Censorship reflects society's lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.”

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 them.”

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.

“Nature knows no indecencies; man invents them.”

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:

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.”

About the Author: David Rhodes has been the president of the School of Visual Arts, New York, since 1978.