Issue 77, Spring 2000

In Texas: Positive Art Brings Negative Response

An art exhibit about Houston’s civil rights history was removed from the windows of Foley’s Department Store. The installation, Today’s Special, by photographer Bill Thomas, commemorated the 1960 sit-in protests that resulted in the integration of Houston’s downtown lunch-counters, including Foley’s, where Thomas’s mother had worked. The provocative photograph, titled Racial Tensions, features black and white figures balanced on opposite ends of a see-saw, with nooses around their necks and hands tied behind their backs. According to Thomas, “Balance must be maintained for them to survive, and any attempt by one to harm the other will result in mutual destruction.” The exhibit had been on display for five days when it was removed by Foley’s president, Tom Hogan, in response to “a few complaints by African-American employees who were offended by the noose imagery. Where most people saw it as a very strong positive message, we believed it was important to be sensitive to those who did not,” said Hogan. Thomas observed, however, “I’m beginning to think that the notion is growing that the right of objections transcends the right of expression.”

Foley’s sponsorship of the show was entirely voluntary. The store has no legal obligation to display any of the artwork. But the show provides a valuable service by affording a forum for local artists to share their perspectives with the community. Coincidentally, an exhibit currently on display at the New York Historical Society, Without Sanctuary, displays photographs of actual lynchings in America from the 1870s to the 1950s and of people watching them. The exhibit has drawn viewers of all races, and received praise for its willingness to explore this painful historical subject. While some see in it a reminder of human capacity for inhumanity, others criticize it for “desensitizing” viewers. Like much else in art, interpretation is in the eye of the beholder.

Even if the art offends, that is no reason to censor it. In a letter to the Houston Chronicle, NCAC observed that artists and social critics often offend, shock and provoke. We wrote, “Martin Luther King Jr. marched in Selma precisely because his presence and message would offend the community. The civil rights movement owes much to the principle that “offensive” speech shouldn’t be suppressed.”

Bill Thomas has reinstalled Today’s Specials at the Vine Street Galleries in Houston. The controversy has stimulated support for his work among blacks and whites, he tells us.