Censorship Redeux: The Smithsonian and MOCA LA

SCOUNDREL TIME, AGAIN—CENSORSHIP RETURNS

Art of the Streets at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2011

Like the swallows return to Capistrano, censorship of art returns every time forces of morality feel emboldened or threatened. Two decades ago, it was Robert Mapplethorpe and Andreas Serrano who were the targets of right wing indignation. In 1989, a threatened conservative faction was on its last legs and would be challenged by the Clinton phenomenon. Attacking helpless artists who want to make art not headlines was an easy diversion, a feint that drew attention away from the very real economic problems the nation faced. Today, two new victims have emerged under strikingly similar circumstances—a right wing threatened by the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and an economic crisis of their own making.

The new Conservative attacks struck down the photographer, David Wojnarowicz, who died twenty years ago, and the political German street artist, Blu. This time, one of the culprits was presumed to be open-minded, Jeffrey Deitch of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. In an unexpected act of apparent censorship, Deitch ordered Blu’s supposedly offensive mural to be whitewashed. The other violator, the venerable Smithsonian Institution, was under the usual monetary pressure from the usual suspects, the Catholic, led by Bill Donohue and the upcoming Republican Leader of the House, John Boehner. The Smithsonian Institution, dependent upon the federal government for funds, obediently removed Wojnarowicz’s video, A Fire in My Belly (1987) of ants crawling over a crucifix from an important exhibition on homosexual identity. That fact that one museum was under political pressure and the other was not indicates that the issue of censorship needs to be looked at from another angle. When and why does censorship of the arts occur?

Censored Video removed from exhibition

Smithsonian Institution’s Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture

Censors are never right. History proves them wrong every time.

When the Corcoran refused to show the Mapplethorpe retrospective, The Perfect Moment, the art world united in its condemnation, and the museum has never recovered from the stain on its honor and reputation. Twenty-one years later, the Smithsonian, a federally funded institution like the Corcoran, was forced to sacrifice the integrity of art for financial survival. And like the Corcoran, the solution of the Smithsonian is short term and is at the expense of moral and ethical principles. If the art was good enough to have been selected, then it is worthy of being defended. The decision by the Smithsonian was particularly strange, given the sea change in public opinion over gay men and women since the deaths of Mapplethorpe (1989) and Wojnarowicz (1992).

The other factor that adds to the ill-timed act of self-censorship is that the Catholic Church, a major actor in this new drama, has lost all credibility. In today’s newspapers, December 18, there are two new stories—one about the Catholic Church sheltering a rapist and the in the other—a pedophiliac. And that was today’s news, not the news of three or four years ago. Where does the Church get off in objecting to the art of a man who has been dead for twenty years? Dead, because conservative factions, including the Catholic Church, blamed the victims of AIDS rather than doing what Jesus Would Do–help the sick and the helpless.

One can perhaps understand the Smithsonian, which was facing a Republican dominated Congress in the fall. But the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” suggests that the decision to censor its own exhibition is, if nothing else, ironic and, worse, pointless. But the whitewashing of the mural in Los Angeles is a strange act on the part of a purportedly open-minded director of a major museum. According to the story, the German street artist, known as “Blu,” had worked with Jeffrey Deitch before and actually stayed with the director of the museum before he painted the mural. Given the checkered history of murals at the Geffen–remember Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (Questions) in 1989-90 and the ensuing controversy, it is hard to believe that Deitch did not ask Blu what his intentions were.

Money Draped Coffins

Censored Mural

Christopher Knight, who defended Deitch, stated that, the neighborhood where MOCA’s annex, The Geffen, is located, is sensitive to art projects. Knight pointed to problems with a mural painted by Barbara Kruger in 1989, that year of art censorship, as an example of art offending the Japanese-American community of Little Tokyo. The Geffen is wedged between the Japanese-American National Museum and the “Go for Broke” War Memorial for the Japanese-American soldiers who died in World War II. [1]

Near the Japanese-American National Museum

MOCA was concerned for the feelings of the Japanese-American community, due to the proximity of the “Go For Broke” site.

Kruger’s first mural offended because it was a simple quotation of the Pledge of Allegiance. For the community, the Pledge was movingly depicted by Dorothea Lange’s photograph of Japanese-American schoolchildren with their hands over their hearts. These children would spend years with their parents in internment camps. During war those years, Little Tokyo was emptied out and when the community returned, it was haunted by one of the worst violations of the Constitution in American history. Kruger painted a new mural with theme of who had the right to speak, a powerful political statement in its own right, especially in that location. That the community approved of the new mural indicates that Little Tokyo is perfectly capable of absorbing political discourse.

Who is Beyond the Law?

Barbara Kruger, artist, 1989

However, this time, the Japanese-American had no time to intervene with the painting of Blu’s mural. In “MOCA’s Very Public Misstep,” Knight made a good point that the community needs to be consulted about public art before it is placed in an environment, that is, like any site, fraught with politics and history. For whatever reason, this very important step was overlooked and the director, acting quickly, arguably too quickly, had the mural painted over the day after it was finished. [2]

process of painting

Blu’s mural

Censorship, in the Twenty-first Century, is a particular futile gesture. Blu’s mural was extensively photographed, first, in its completed state and then, in its wiped out condition of destruction. All images were immediately posted on the Internet where they will live forever. Like Wojnarowicz’s video, A Fire in My Belly, which is on YouTube, the images are easily obtained over the Internet. [3] The images of Blu’s mural are everywhere. The offending mural showed rows of coffins, covered, not in the American flag, but in dollar bills, presumably making a comment about there recent military incursion into Iraq, a highly unpopular and undeclared “war.” Clearly, the artist was making a statement about America waging unpopular and illegal wars of choice for the sole purpose of making money for Halliburton and seizing Iraqi oil.

Who knows what the Japanese-American veterans and their descendants would have thought of the mural? Maybe they would approve of the anti-war statement: lives should never be squandered (hence the $1 bills) for an unjust cause. Lives are too precious and too priceless to be laid down for anything less than a fight for survival. Perhaps using soldiers as pawns in political wars would not go down well with a group—the legendary 442nd—that was the most decorated—21 medals of Honor, the most wounded—9,486 Purple Hearts—and the most killed in the history of the American military.

If the feelings of the Japanese-American veterans were the Museum’s concern, then the view of the institution was not particularly nuanced. There was a significant and vocal group of young men, interned in concentration camps, who took a principled stand against serving a country that took away the rights of its citizens. One of those conscientious objectors was Frank Emi, wh0 died yesterday. According to the obituary in The New York Times, he was joined in his stand against the United States government by three hundred protesters in ten camps.

All these men were tried and convicted of evading the draft. [4] Emi was sentenced to four years in prison and served eighteen months until President Truman acquired a conscience and granted the young men a pardon. Called a traitor by those in the Japanese-American community who served, Emi explained, “We could either tuck our tails between our legs like a beaten dog or stand up like free men and fight for justice.” The Japanese-American community is, like every other group in America, is diverse. But surely they would agree with freedom of speech?

The argument that Deitch’s action was a misjudgment because he did not consult with the community first is not very convincing, because the community was not brought into the discussion either before or after the mural was painted. Rather than opening the doors for a frank and honest discussion of wars and why and where they are fought, Deitch slammed the door with a unilateral decision.

Blu's Mural

Whitewashing the Mural

Writing in The Huffington Post, my friend, Mat Gleason, has stated that the Smithsonian censorship is not like that of MOCA, [5] citing the proximity of the “Go for Broke” site.

But I beg to differ.

So did Peter Clothier in “Censorship: Coast to Coast,” in Huffington Post, December 17. In fact most observers of this fiasco agree: Censorship is censorship. No amount of whitewashing will undo what Deitch has done. [6] However, I will agree with Gleason that the two acts of censorships are different. The Smithsonian caved in to right wing politics to the habit conservatives have of latching on to a perceived “assault” on “family values” and attacking it. Usually, these people move on but leave behind in their wake very real and very lasting damage.

Undoubtedly it is the goal of the religious right to harm “elitist” institutions and that is all the more reason to stand up to the hysteria of such fanatics who would take away freedom of speech. It should be recalled that the heroes of 1989 are not Christina Orr-Carhall of the Corcoran but another friend, the late Ted Potter of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts, and Dennis Barrie of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. Both men stood up to their critics and survived with their honor intact.

And then there is the issue of Street Art itself. Did the censorship of Blu’s mural occur because the director was afraid that art would get dragged into politics? If so, he clearly does not understand street art. Street art is often political. Deitch invited unfortunate comparisons with Christine Sterling, who infamously whitewashed the Tropical America mural by David Siquerios in 1933, a year after it was painted.

Tropical America

Siqueiros Mural Restored

The irony is doubled with the Getty at this moment engaged in a years long restoration of the work, obscured for decades. Street Art is, by its very nature, an outsider art. The artists, many of whom practice in anonymity, represent the last of the avant-garde. Supposedly, the role of the contemporary artist is to challenge the public but most of the prominent contemporary artists have long since been co-opted by the Establishment.

Postmodern thinking asserts that the avant-garde is dead and that there can be nothing new in art, therefore, so what? But does the avant-garde, which merely means “forward movement” have to be about the new and the novel? Does the unfortunate fact of belatedness mean that an artist cannot confront a public or shock the art audience from its complacency? Like many observers of the current art world, I am appalled at the moribund state of the art world, which is doing the Same Old, Same Old, or to quote Jean-Michel Basquiat, “SAMO” or the “same old shit.”

Street artists seem to be the last of the Old Guard: the only artists willing to prod people into doing actual thinking. An excellent example of the artist as gadfly was on view the other day when an unnamed street artist put up a poster of Jeffrey Deitch as the Atollah. [7] The judgment of the street artist may be as harsh as the comparison but the poster begs the question is censorship ever justified?

poster

protest poster

Two very real problems have been raised by the actions of MOCA. Public art is always a negotiation between the world of art and the world of the public. If there is a gap between the art and the public, it is because the art world deliberately created that gulf called the “avant-garde.” Can any form of public art remain avant-garde or have the pretension of being thought provoking? The case history of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc (1981) would suggest that public art must always be an art of compromise. On both sides. In the case of MOCA’s actions, there seems to have been no negotiation, no discussion, and no compromise, just censorship. If the artist is to have any role in society as an individual with a unique mission, then is it not to stand tall for freedom of expression? Are not artists our first line of defense against those who would silence eloquent voices?

If the career of Bansky is any indication, street artists can slide into the mainstream and put themselves in danger of compromising their principles. Of all people, Shepherd Fairey has condoned the effacement (called the “buffing”) of the mural of Blu’s mural. After a brief flirtation with accommodation, Blu decided he was not happy with being censored. One wonders what will happen to the upcoming exhibition, Art in the Streets, this April—-how many artists will withdraw because of MOCA’s act of censorship? After a problematic overture to the exhibition, hopefully, Deitch can redeem himself this spring with another of those landmark shows that allowed MOCA to make its mark. MOCA’s 1989 exhibition, The Forest of Signs, provoked this powerful mural by Barbara Kruger. Its message still says it all:

Who is Free to Choose? Who is Beyond the Law? Who is Healed? Who is Housed? Who Speaks? Who is Silenced? Who Salutes the Longest? Who Prays Loudest? Who Dies First? Who Laughs Last?

Who indeed?

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.


[1] Christopher Knight, “MOCA’s Very Public Misstep,” The Los Angeles Times, December 12, page 1, Section D

[2] Jori Finkel, “MOCA is Behind the Whitewash,” The Los Angeles Times, December 14, page 1, Section D

[3] The video is available on YouTube but there is cumbersome sign in system. The San Francisco Examiner has provided the video without strings—just click.

[4] Dennis Hevesi, “Frank Emi, Defiant World War II Internee, Dies at 94,” The New York Times, December 19, 2010, page 36.

[5] Mat Gleason, “MOCA Blu Street Art Whitewash is No Smithsonian-esque Censorship,” December 14, Huffington Post

[6] Edward Goldman: “American Museums: All Talk, No Walk,” in Huffington Post and Art Talk, KCRW

Jamie Roo and Steven Harrington, “Censorship: MOCA has a Blu Tiger by the Tail,” reprinted as “Censorship! MOCA has a Blu Tiger by the Tail,” in Huffington Post, December 15

[7] Deborah Vankin, “Taking a Swipe at MOCA, The Los Angeles Times, December 18, 2010, Section D, page 1.

“Queer Art” and AIDS, Part Two

The Reception of “Queer Art”

Part Two

A large blue painting, the color of a dark daylight sky, filled with falling birds, dropping from the heavens, wings paralyzed in death is one of the great images on the AIDS crisis. Using the discredited and discarded style of Op Art, the painter, Ross Bleckner, was the elegiac poet of mourning. Memorium of 1985 features a silver urn, a visual/verbal l play on the early term for homosexuals: “uranian” and the urn, used to hold the ashes of the deceased. In retrospect it seems unthinkable that the United States government would allow an epidemic of a deadly and incurable disease to break out, unchecked, endangering all citizens, but the falling/floating birds of Birdland (2000) commemorates the fallen and the falling and the failing.

This unthinkable neglect, a fact of history, is a measure of the antipathy of the American government towards its gay and lesbian citizens. One wonders if the gay community had not had large numbers of talented artists who had equally talented straight allies and if these victims had not been well-educated and articulate and well positioned in society, what the outcome of the AIDS crisis would have been. It is possible the epidemic could have swept the nation with devastating impact. It is rare that one can point to such a clear example of the power of art. But the power of art often also puts art and artists who are activists in the cross hairs of censorship.

One senator, the late Jesse Helms of North Carolina waged a full scale war on art with perceived “homosexual content.” Locked in a close re-election in 1989 with an African American candidate, Harvey Gantt, Helms seized an unlikely opportunity to put race on the agenda. His target was Robert Mapplethorpe, a well know New York photographer whose work was being shown in a local art institution, Southeaster Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, a recipient of federal funds for the National Endowment for the Arts. Helms made the case that Mapplethorpe’s photographs of male nudes, most of them African American and gay, was a misuse of taxpayer money and that the viewers of these images would be morally and sexually impacted by the sight of nude males.

From the standpoint of the art world, Mapplethorpe was essentially a conservative art photographer, specializing in portraits and in flowers, and his work was beautiful and classic. Mapplethorpe’s approach to photography was based upon the ideas of Greek art and its reverence for the human body. For anyone in the art world, nudity is commonplace and accepted and the photographs of this photographer were no more or less interesting than any other art photographs. Indeed, Mapplethorpe had a modest reputation as a portraitist of local stars in the art world, but other photographers, such as Cindy Sherman, enjoyed higher acclaim for their Conceptual Art photography. However, there was an underground content of some of his photographs in the notorious X Portfolio, which were of the “rough trade” world of homosexual fetishism that would have been unsettling to an art audience outside of New York or Los Angeles.

Mapplethorpe’s works were divided into portfolios, X, Y and Z and it was one significant body of work that came to the attention of Jesse Helms, called The Black Book, a book of photographs of nude black men. Today, it is sad to leaf through the pages of this famous book, for all those involved in the making of the book, the models and the photographer himself, are dead from AIDS. The book is full of beautiful photographs of beautiful black men, photographed beautifully in the tradition of Greek art and the idealization of the human body. Mapplethorpe was simply part of a line of twentieth century photographers, such as Edward Weston and Minor White, who photographed and abstracted the human body.

But the art world traditions and the classical roots of The Black Book were lost on Jesse Helms who objected when a public gallery, funded by federal monies, in his state showed photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, including those from The Black Book. Helms went on the attack and decimated federal funding for artists through the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts), stating that tax-payer money should not be spent on “pornography.” The art world responded with anger to Helms and his views on art and the attack on the arts strengthened the support for all art—especially gay artist and gay art.

By the nineties, homosexual artists were accepted without comment and gay art as political art was accepted and began to exist apart from the AIDS controversies. Glen Ligon, an African-American artist who is gay, commented upon the politics of racism in the work of Mapplethorpe with his own art. Mapplethorpe posed black men like objects for white people in the art world to admire. Ligon’s Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991-93) unmasked the supposed formalism in Mapplethorpe’s work and revealed the eroticization of the less-powerful black men, disempowered in their nudity (a slave practice), by a more powerful white man. Notes was Ligon’s first work to deal with the cultural eroticization of the black male and his first revelatory work as a gay artist.

Nan Goldin is a self-identified bisexual artist who made her reputation with her seminal work, The Ballard of Sexual Dependency (1979-1986), which originally was exhibited as a slide show in a gallery. This series of color photographs were candid shots of herself and her social circle in the underground punk, gay, transvestite cultures of New York City. Compared to the scandal surrounding Mapplethorpe, Goldin’s career, post AIDS, has been relatively uneventful, and her images of drag queens (below) have caused little consternation among the art public. But for the arts community, the AIDS crisis was a lingering one and Goldin produced a powerful series of images of friends dying of AIDS. As Goldin stated, “AIDS changed everything in my life. There’s life before AIDS, and after AIDS.”

Working in the tradition in which artists would sit near the bedside of a dying loved one and drawing a series of death bed portraits, Goldin commemorated her friend, Cookie, and her Parisian art dealer, Gilles Dusein through wrenching candid photographs. Goldin who was among the AIDS activists in the arts who introduced the red ribbon which was soon worn by millions of people in solidarity. The photographer gave an account of the art world reaction not just to AIDS but also to government indifference:

The same day Cookie died, my big show “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing” opened, which I curated at New York’s Artists Space. It was the first major show done by people in the community where all the work was done by people with AIDS or by people who had died of AIDS. It became a national controversy. The government took away the show’s grant from the National Endowment of the Arts because of David Wojnarowicz’s text, a brilliant dissertation against the government and the Catholic church for their position and their silence on AIDS. There were 15,000 people at the opening because of the rage at the government’s response.

David Wojnarowicz has since died of AIDS and, before his death, he produced a significant body of work that paralleled that of his friend as witness to the AIDS death of photographer Peter Hujar. The power of his work and his protests against the mistreatment of AIDS victims was still potent in 2010, when over a decade after his death in 1992, a brief video Fire in My Belly, A Work in Progress (1986-87) was censored by the Smithsonian Institution. The film, a shortened version of a thirteen minute video, showed a crucified Christ covered with crawling ants. The theme was a condemnation of the attitude of the Catholic Church towards AIDS victims and made the point that these victims were also martyrs. The Church misinterpreted the work, in the words of William Donohue, as “hate speech.” Twenty years after the assault on the art of the late Robert Mapplethorpe, the Smithsonian removed the work from view.

Read Part One of this topic: “Queer Art and AIDS”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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