A recent incident a Berkeley’s Addison Street Gallery forced the City to review its guidelines on art shown in the gallery. The guidelines, which included a blanket ban on any representations of guns, had led to the cancellation to The Art of Democracy, a touring poster show.

After letters from the ACLU and NCAC, the City decided to modify its guidelines. The new guidelines state that “Artwork is selected on its aesthetic merits. Art will be chosen with appropriate regard for the nature of the space and the audience. This gallery addresses the viewer directly on the public right of way. Art must exhibit a high degree of consideration for citizen’s sensitivities to violence, sexual expression and negative portrayals of diverse populations.”

While it is good that the City removed the blanket content restrictions, the new guidelines are not very reassuring. The  language in the last sentence of the new policy is, in fact, rather alarming. What exactly does it mean that art must show consideration for citizen sensitivities? Surely anything ranging from Picasso’s Guernica (too violent) to Michelangelo’s David (too naked) could offend somebody’s sensibilities. Under the obligation to ruffle no feathers, what is a curator to do but go for the safest and blandest.

Naturally, most of the issues we truly care about are ones upon which we disagree. If art in a public gallery is pressured to avoid precisely those issues because some artist’s point of view might clash with an passerby’s sensitivities, that gallery is going to be doomed to irrelevance. And really, is provocative art in gallery windows the worst that children can see in the street?

Justin DeFreitas
Berkeley Daily Planet, West …
Dec 5, 2008