Michele Tuohey‘s painting, “Butterfly,” was removed from a curated show of Cuban-American art sponsored by the Department of Agriculture during the State Fair in Springfield, IL in August 2001. The decision to remove the painting from the show was made by Joe Hampton, Department of Agriculture Director. The problem, according to a statement made by John Herath, spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, was the red umbilical cord running between the legs of one of the figures in the painting to a fetus behind her. That element, said Mr. Herath, would make it hard for parents to “face questions that the painting might bring up for their children.” Less specifically, the decision to remove the painting was justified on the grounds that it was in “bad taste for the fair”—a justification Illinois Governor George Ryan accepted as valid and quoted to the press.
Concerned with the fact that state officials took it upon themselves to judge the tastefulness of a work selected through a professional curatorial process the NCAC sent a letter to Governor Ryan (see below) urging him to find an alternative space to show Ms. Tuohey’s work as well as develop a statement regarding the exhibition of art in designated public spaces, which recognizes artistic freedom and curatorial discretion. Our letter was endorsed by national and local free expression and arts organizations, as well as by numerous artists and other individuals.
Joe Hampton, the Director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, responded by inventing yet another unconvincing reason for taking down the painting. Even though the spokesman for the Department, Mr. Herath, confirmed personally to us this February what he stated to the press last year, namely, that the painting was taken down because it was deemed inappropriate for children, Mr. Hampton now claims that the “painting did not represent the essence or diversity of what was trying to be conveyed and shared about our mission to Cuba.”
When government officials do lip service to artistic freedom?”The State of Illinois respects the integrity of an artist’s personal vision and his or her right to freedom of expression,” wrote Mr. Hampton?while removing work of art under sloppily put together pretexts, who is being fooled?
Though it is reassuring that state officials have realized the constitutionally problematic nature of judging a painting “in bad taste” or applying the subjective criterion of “appropriateness for children” and removing it, it is very disturbing to see how censorship could be allowed to masquerade under thin disguises. It hardly contributes to our respect for government to have public officials shift ground multiple times and substitute one unconvincing reason for another when they want to censor without appearing to do so.
Let us examine this latest reason Mr. Hampton has given us. Mr. Hampton claims that Ms. Tuohey’s painting didn’t reflect quite what Governor Ryan’s delegation observed in Cuba. In fact, while a section of the show was dedicated to photographs documenting this event, the rest focused on Cuban creative artists in the United States and was not meant to represent any particular topic. The works gave expression to the artists’ personal vision in frequently abstract and symbolic work. Significantly, no other paintings were taken down even though they had nothing to do with the literal representation of what the delegation saw?paintings of flowers were fine; abstract works were OK; a symbolic representation of a woman’s body was also acceptable; even one of Tuohey’s highly stylized paintings was left to hang; it is only when it came to the supposedly very un-Cuban experience of motherhood that the censors paused.
The one criterion the curator, Oscar Martinez, specified in his proposal was that the work be by Cuban artists in the United States. His only other criterion was artistic excellence. Martinez is an experienced curator with extensive knowledge of Latino art. As Executive Director of the Latin American Museum of Art in Chicago, he was the obvious person to be invited to select the work for the exhibition. The diversity of personal expression reflected the range of sensibilities and richness of artistic vision of Cuban-Americans today. The public relations director Department of Agriculture loved the show. The artists loved the show. But then a group of government officials paused in front of “Butterfly”?there was some hesitation: would somebody interpret this to be about abortion? Would a red umbilical cord raise questions??and then Mr. Hampton made the decision to have the painting removed. Since then the department has given reason after unconvincing reason for that decision.
If government officials can declare respect for an artist’s personal vision and freedom of expression, while taking that freedom away, it is up to the rest of us to take a stand.
NCAC’s Letter to Governor George H. Ryan
Dear Governor Ryan:
In a recent letter regarding the removal of Michele Tuohey’s painting, “Butterfly,” from an exhibition at the last Illinois State Fair, the National Coalition Against Censorship asked you to create a statement recognizing artistic freedom of expression and curatorial discretion in publicly supported exhibition spaces. Mr. Joe Hampton from the Department of Agriculture responded asserting, “The State of Illinois respects the integrity of an artist’s personal vision and his or her right to freedom of expression.” However, he also denied that “Butterfly” was taken down because of discomfort with its content and advanced yet one more in what is now a series of quite unconvincing reasons issued by the Department of Agriculture to members of the public and the press. Rather than continue what appears to be an unproductive discussion about whether the work was censored or not, we would like to build upon Mr. Hampton’s assurance of respect for artistic vision and urge you to adopt a resolution based on it. As citizens of Illinois, we believe the adoption of a resolution recognizing artistic freedom would be an act in the interest of the public good. We are never going to all agree on art, politics, religion and many other topics. So instead of taking art down, let us learn from the differing points of view that it can stimulate. We would like to present the enclosed statement for the exhibition of art in government supported spaces and urge you to officially adopt it as a resolution. This action will show the people of Illinois and beyond that you respect and value art as enriching lives, encouraging discussion, learning and healthy argument. As a leader who is proficient at being the first to initiate projects and ideas, we can ask no less of you as our governor and hope that others around the country will take your lead.