The Condoms of Art : Continuing Actions Regarding the Censorship of Art (updated)

Posted: January 17, 2011 in Uncategorized

(Update I: below)

The artist group L. A. Raw, which was behind the Night Projection Protest, has been continuing their actions against the destruction and censorsing of the “Blu” Mural by MOCA and Jeffery Dietch.  At a January 13, 2011 panel discussion at the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles, which tackled the issue of “How Does Street Art Humanize Cities?”(Zócalo at the Fowler: How Does Street Art Humanize Cities?), the loose collective passed out condoms as part of their “Practice Safe Art!” protest/performance to those in attendance of the panel discussion.  The Packed Condoms were printed with the admonishment “Don’t Be Blu, Deitch, Practice Safe Art.”

Condom for Safe Art

Part of their statement about the protest-object : The “Deitch” condoms simply state “Don’t Be Blu, Practice Safe Art” playing with a well known public health campaign which utilized the slogan “Practice Safe Sex” . In the case of the “Deitch” condom – the “product” speaks to the disease of censorship and intolerance of political dissent which must be handled by practicing safe art and hindering expression in order to not ruffle the feathers of the powers that be.

Blu Sketchbook

The Group also passed out fliers for upcoming protest/performances. Included will be an action “Funeral Procession for Freedom of Expression” on January 20th at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. This will intersect with censorship issues regarding the National Portrait Gallery and the removal of the video piece “Fire in My Belly” as the Smithsonian’s secretary G. Wayne Clough will be there at that time. The protest has as its focus the current “escalation of art censorship”.

Blu, il nulla 2007

Artinfo has an email interview with the artist protest group, LA RAW, about their activities and concerns regarding the issues of censorship and the public expression of ideas.

Blu Sketch (for animation, 2008)

And, as a fellow street artist, Shepard Fairey talks to the guys at Culture Monster at the LA Times about the destruction of the mural as well. Oddly he seems complacent with the whitewashing of the mural. Could he believe that there is a “short life” to this type of art and that the intersections of all public actions mean the work must disappear in the social dialogue? Given the accenting of differing social and institutional trajectories he notes in the statement this would appear to be his take on the issue.

A short film by the Italian Street Artist Blu.  Blu has worked consistently with street animation created on/in public walls and areas. This is his most recent animated work, 2010, titled “Big Bang, Big Boom” which utilizes the objects and refuse of the public space along with architectural elements.

Update I:

During his visit to Los Angeles on the 18th of January Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough defended the removal of “Fire in my Belly” from the National Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek Exhibition saying:

I still believe it was a right decision and I’m still proud that the exhibit is still up and thousands of people are coming and learning what we hoped they would learn from it.

LA Protest directed towards Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough visit

His implication was that it was better to remove one piece from the show than face a closure of the entire exhibition.

After threats from Republican leaders in the Government, notably GOP House leader John Boehner, about “funding” it was not strange that Clough would try this tact and he went on to soften the blow by saying this was contrary to his actual desires as: it was a difficult position for me personally because I have been a supporter of free speech everywhere I’ve gone, as well as gay rights, and to be perceived in some other light is a painful experience for me.

Protesters outside Smithsonina calling for return of David Wojnarowicz's video

Given the Culture wars in the US (which are a means of a moneyed elite to circumvent real problems and deflect attention away from activates which would galvanize the general populace against this upper echelons of cash congestion) Clough said: I think it was very important to cut off the dialogue that was headed towards, in essence, hijacking the exhibit away from us and putting it into the context of religious desecration. This continues to be a powerful exhibit about the contributions of gay and lesbian artists. It was not about religious iconography and it was not about desecration. When you look at the news cycles that take over, their [the show’s critics’] megaphones are this big [making a broad gesture] and our megaphone is this big [a small gesture]. We don’t control that. And when it gets out of control, you can’t get it back.

Protest shed that offers continuous showings of David Wojnarovicz's A Fire in My Belly, parked directly in front of the National Portrait Gallery

The problem is that now Clough seems to imply the institute will do a more “accurate” and aggressive pre-censorship of art:  “We didn’t see that particular work through the lens of how someone else would perceive it — as religious desecration. We could have done a better job there. And we will learn from that.”

The calculation did not seem to work out as  however.  Funding is threatened at levels far beyond those implemented (see Jesse Helms, and the Piss Christ controversy which began the elimination of art funding) by the US in the 80’s. A group of conservative Republicans, called the Republican Study Committee, revealed a new plan on Thursday to cut federal funding for arts down to zero. This means the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities would be left in the cold. Not to mention the potential hit at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Run by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the over 150-person group’s plan, the Spending Reduction Act of 2011, would “save” $167.5 million pulled from the NEA and the Humanities endowment and $445 from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. They are forecasting that this erasure of cultural funding would reduce federal spending by $2.5 trillion over the next decade. (read brief rundown here, or click link above for full slashings.)

The second “miscalculation” Though the Catholic League (really just one far right membership of William A. Donohue) was one of the first to complain about the piece and assure its removal the Catholics for Choice, through its president has published this Open Letter to Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough call for the video’s return to the exhibition (letter is published here in its entirety)

Dear Secretary Clough,

We at Catholics for Choice are very disappointed in your decision to remove David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly” from the “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” exhibition. Your decision amounted to censorship, plain and simple.

The National Portrait Gallery plays a vital role in safeguarding and expanding the nation’s cultural heritage. In doing so, people have rightly come to expect great things from the gallery. The magnificent spaces that were developed during the recent renovations have fittingly drawn accolades and visitors from around the world. As a result, the gallery’s exhibitions nurture the nation’s cultural life, promoting the arts as well as the public’s appreciation of the arts.

Unfortunately, your decision to censor David Wojnarowicz’s art has sullied the reputation of the National Portrait Gallery and does a disservice both to the arts community and the public. For artists, it suggests that in order to be considered by your gallery, their art may have to be uncontroversial. For the public, it suggests that what they see at the gallery may not be the full story, that exhibitions may be tailored so that they do not offend anybody. Neither scenario is positive.

Dealing with complaints and criticism is part and parcel of being a public figure and a public institution. However, that does not mean that you should seek to avoid controversy. Nor, on the other hand, are you required to seek it out without good reason. However, we should acknowledge the role that controversy can play in advancing the arts. Discussions about what is and is not controversial can help us judge what is and is not good art. In considering how to respond to the controversy, you had a decision to make. Who should be the arbiters of what is available — those who scream the loudest about what they don’t like, or those whose job it is to decide whether a specific piece of art is included in an exhibition? In choosing to pay heed to the loudest voices, you did a disservice to the public.

It is especially disturbing that you bowed to pressure from an organization that has made a business out of manufacturing controversy. Bill Donohue of the Catholic League is a zealot who seeks to curtail freedom of expression at every turn. His attacks on “A Fire in My Belly” follow his tried and tested modus operandi, as can be seen in a report we produced on his group, The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights: Neither Religious nor Civil, and would have been obvious to anybody who had done even a cursory search on the group.

The Catholic League does not speak for all Catholics — in fact it speaks for very few, but does so very loudly. However, as is often the case, the noise level should not be considered indicative of the strength of its support nor the correctness of its claims. We too are Catholics, but we do not support the use of our religion in this crusade. As Catholics, we absolutely do not support your decision and join the majority of Americans — Catholic and non-Catholic alike — who do not support censorship of the arts. We can only judge what we can see. We accept the possibility that we may be offended by what we see. In the spirit of promoting artistic freedom, we are happy to accept that possibility.

Censorship of the arts is the last thing that an art institution should be doing. You have set a low standard for yourselves, and for your public. The National Portrait Gallery plays an important role in the cultural life of the city and the nation. Your decision sends the worst possible message to artists, to other cultural institutions and to the American people.

Yours sincerely,

Jon O’Brien
President, Catholics for Choice

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