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by LINDA MITCHELL
NOW, I DON'T KNOW ABOUT YOU,
BUT WHENEVER I HEAR THE word "censorship" I get a mental
image of a roaring Nazi bonfire, stoked with priceless works
of art and first edition copies of Lady Chatterley's Lover.
It's an ugly image, and anti-American as well, as far as I'm
concerned, so you can imagine my horror when a letter came across
my desk the other day suggesting that a wave of art censorship
has been washing over the North Coast. The letter pointed out
the removal of Chuck Bowden's drawing from the Redwood Art Association's
(RAA) Fall Exhibit allegedly due to its political content; the
rejection of a sculpture from the same show for its sexual content;
and a recent notice sent to the Ink People from Mad River Hospital
stating that art with religious, political or sexual content
will not be accepted into its Alternative Gallery space.
[Untitled, by Jeremy Hara. Warning!
This photo may not be suitable for viewers under the age
This letter from a concerned
citizen is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg. The censorship
issue has become a hotly debated topic in the local art community
ever since the Associated Press picked up the RAA-Bowden story
last month, and it seems like everywhere I go, someone wants
to talk about it. People are worried.
I'd probably be a whole lot
more concerned myself if I believed art censorship actually was
an issue on the North Coast. The problem with the debate is that
it generally begins with some variation of: "in addition
to the censorship of the Bowden drawing," a thesis which
quickly falls apart when you begin to question whether or not
that piece was actually censored.
For those of you unfamiliar
with the story, I'll try to be brief: Artist Chuck Bowden entered
a small pen and ink drawing in the RAA Fall Show, claiming on
the entry form an insurance value of $35,000. The piece was accepted
on a Saturday by the RAA's "entry day" committee; was
awarded second place by an independent judge on Sunday, and was
hung on the wall later that same day.
The next day someone on RAA's
board checked with the insurance company to see if the unusually
high value would pose a problem. They were told the artist would
be expected to substantiate his claim (via sales records or a
professional appraisal) if the drawing was damaged or stolen.
Since Bowden couldn't provide any proof and chose not to lower
the value, he was asked to remove the piece. He still received
his prize money.
Oh, yeah. Did I mention that
Bowden's drawing, The Tactics of Tyrants Are Always Transparent,
was an anti-Bush piece accusing the president of masterminding
the 9/11 attacks? Or that the owner of the business who put up
the second place prize, a staunch Republican, took back his award
money after some genius on the board came up with the brilliant
idea of calling to give him a "heads up?" (As I mentioned,
Bowden still got his award, but it came out of the RAA's kitty.)
Bowden was sure the business
owner had somehow pressured the RAA into removing his drawing,
the media picked up the story, and the rest, as they say, is
history. And even though "Anti-Bush Drawing Banned in Eureka!"
makes a much juicier headline than "Artist Overprices his
Drawing," I'm afraid I'll have to go with the insurance
explanation. Here's the thing: If the RAA had wanted to pull
the piece because of its content, they would have done it openly.
It says right on their entry form, "The RAA reserves the
right to refuse work on the basis of content unsuitable for exhibition."
Why in the world would they sneak around about it?
Which brings me to Jeremy Hara's
sculpture, the piece that actually was censored out of
the same RAA show on entry day. Board member Julia Bednar told
me it was rejected because the subject matter -- a vagina --
"bordered on pornography."
I'm sure there are at least
a few people out there saying "bordered?" right about
now, but let's think about this for a minute. Hara contends that
his Untitled, a vagina carved out of a pink bar of Caress
soap (you gotta love it), is about the juxtaposition of what
we perceive as "dirty" with what we perceive as "clean."
Undoubtedly inspired by conceptual artist Thomas Friedman's use
of soap and pubic hair as a medium, Hara's sculpture exhibits
a witty and sophisticated thought process.
Of course, without the artist
there to explain his concept, some people might view the sculpture
as -- well, just a vagina. We can probably forgive the entry
day committee for mistaking it as porn. Hara says he knew he
was "pushing the boundaries," and had another piece
ready to substitute in case the Caress bar was turned away. The
substituted piece won an award and Hara is currently exhibiting
his censored sculpture in the Empire Squared show at the Ink
People Gallery (through January) along with his rejection slip.
And speaking of the Ink People,
how about that Mad River Hospital "incident"? The hospital
has provided one of the Ink People's "Alternative Gallery"
spaces for years, and, frankly, I'm surprised it's just now getting
around to putting its preference for non-controversial work in
writing. When you stop and think about it, can you really blame
a hospital for wanting to hang art that isn't likely to annoy
anyone? People who go to hospitals are generally either a) sick,
b) taking care of people who are sick, or c) visiting people
who are sick. Maybe there are more appropriate venues for provocative
As a matter of fact, my mom
died of cancer at Mad River Hospital a few years ago, and anyone
who's been through the experience can tell you it's no day at
the ballpark. I spent a lot of time wandering the hospital corridors,
feeling lousy. At the time, Geta Hershberger's watercolor paintings
of her garden were hanging on the walls and looking at them each
day gave me a little comfort. In those circumstances, I would
much rather have been contemplating the way Geta turns pigment
and water into light than worrying about whether or not the 9/11
attacks were even more horrific than anybody imagined.
If you're not happy about what's
being censored in our community, get involved, ask questions,
make your voice heard. But while it's crucial for us as artists
and citizens to be vigilant against real attempts to suppress
our ideas and speech, it's also important not to resort to knee-jerk
responses when dealing with real life situations regarding the
art in our own community.
Linda Mitchell can be reached
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