Dear J. Robert Wills, Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Arizona State University,
It has recently come to my attention that you and a few others (I’m sure the list will multiply endlessly) are responsible for censoring the work of several artists who, until recently, were slated to participate in an otherwise applause-worthy show titled "Democracy in America," set to coincide both in time and place with the final presidential debates between President Bush and Senator Kerry on October 13th, 2004.
In the spirit of disclosure and transparency: I learned about this act of censorship from my partner Ryan McNamara, whose piece “Angry Americans” was among those set to be exhibited. I would like to use his piece as an example, as you already have. “Angry Americans” is a series of eight large photographic portraits of young children theatrically demonstrating their best attempts at anger. These color close-ups are installed side-by-side, forming a large rectangle of six by nine feet. Earlier this year this piece was requested for "Democracy in America," and was routed straight from a show in Belgium to be stored at Arizona State University until its installation. Several days ago one of the curators, John Spiak, informed Mr. McNamara that this piece was too controversial and would not appear in the show. Mr. Spiak, whose implication in these events leads me to question his credibility, will no doubt take some of the fall, though I and others will be watching to make su re he is not used as a scapegoat as this controversy unfolds.
According to a series of internal e-mails made available to Mr. McNamara and myself thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, “Angry Americans” was among several pieces cut from the show for their ostensible “Bush-negative” content. Some of the other artists whose work was either removed entirely or replaced with less offensive pieces from storage include Jim Budde, Mear One, Enrique Chagoya, Peter Kuper, Robbie Conal, Sue Coe, and the art group Think Again (D. Attyah and S. A. Bachman). Upon reading these e-mails, what becomes clear is that an otherwise prestigious museum at a publicly funded university was swayed by an increasingly criticism-phobic American political climate after some unnamed state legislators (!) and the University president took interest in the “controversial” nature of the exhibition, particularly its timing in regards to the presidential debates occurring a stones throw away.
The e-mails show you, Mr. Wills, demanding a “balance” between “anti-Bush” art and “anti-Kerry” art, followed by a flurry of desperate missives (“I didn’t sleep last night. I realize what I sent last night as the ‘balanced’ list was still too heavy on the Bush-negative”) from curators and university representatives attempting to classify the art according to these terms and then add and subtract pieces until an equal number of each remained. To most reasonable people of principle, there would be several problems with these actions. Let me spell them out for you.
Prima facie, asking contemporary artists to be as evenly “anti-Kerry” as they are “anti-Bush” is preposterous given that Mr. Bush has been commander-in-chief of our country for the last four years and Mr. Kerry has not. Mr. Bush would clearly draw more attention and has more symbolic gravity than Mr. Kerry for any artist doing any sort of work over the past four years. Obviously you are not interested in an accurate representation of how current artists portray contemporary American politics, because these artists relentlessly paint a poor portrait of Mr. Bush.
Secunda facie, the reading of “Angry Americans” as “anti-Bush” is so brash and reductive, so insensitive to nuance, that it seems less like the product of a modern museum of quality and more like an ironic comment on inter pretation under dictatorships. The most that could be said offhand about the piece is that it may offer a critique of war, or the rush to war, and, must I remind you, Mr. Kerry recently advocated our country’s invasion of Iraq. “Angry Americans” could be seen as reflecting upon the conditions for a policy of revanchism, a policy which, against all evidence, you have crudely associated solely with Mr. Bush.
Not to mention that, (3) art is intended to challenge people, not tranquilize them into thinking that all candidates are equal and (4) art, the academy, and the event in the auditorium several hundred feet away are all meant to inspire perhaps the one thing that actually makes politics political, debate, which you have, out of fear, hate, or perhaps just plain stupidity, wrested from the hands of the curators who had offered that occasion to the public.
But putting aside the question of which art falls into the anti-Kerry camp and which is anti-Bush, the even graver error you have committed regards the terms you have set for “balance,” which in a radically catachrestic gesture operates here as loose code for affirming the status quo, suffocating debate, and vanquishing dissenting points of view. We must seriously interrogate what travels under the banner of “balance,” and I think you ought to question whether it is your (or the University president’s, or the state legislature’s) responsibility to decide what a balanced art show might consist of, or indeed whether it is possible for someone of your station to have the clarity of vision to make such a decision. You seek impartiality, but have instead reinstalled the very partisanship you supposedly sought to dissolve. The effect of this ridiculous censorship is that instead of seeing a piece by graffiti artist Mear One criticizing our current administration’s bellicose approach to world politics, attendees will see a nice, fat, rosy portrait of Ronald Reagan drawn from your White House collection. How challenging, how quaint. If this is your idea of balance, then let me refer you to some excellent positions at Fox News.
Or perhaps I have it all wrong. In the tradition of philosophers such as Luce Irigaray, I should applaud you for hyperbolically miming (and therefore exposing) the terms of our current melancholic democracy. Surely your own response to the show, censorship, constitutes an artistic contribution that does more to demonstrate and highlight the infuriating deficiencies of our current political “community” than artists of other means could ever hope to accomplish. Democracy in America would be, at best, incomplete without the intrusion and reinstallation of a hegemonic grammar and the subsequent drama that reveals so well what democracy in America really means today: the methodical starvation of forums for critical thought; silence.
David M. Velasco
138 6th Avenue