Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Riverdale Press: Return of the Censors

THE RIVERDALE PRESS Thursday, May 11, 2006

The return of the censors

In 1988, Chicago police arrested a painting; last week, New York City jailed an entire art exhibit.

In both cases, the offending art was student work on display in the year-end show that is a college art department’s equivalent of a thesis.

In both cases, the authorities acted precipitately and in violation of the fundamental right of artists to express themselves and of our fundamental right to make up our own minds.

In both cases the academic institutions that should have defended their students and the faculty that mentored them instead beat a craven retreat.

It took a federal court to rebuke the Chicago authorities for confiscating David Nelson’s mocking portrait of the city’s late mayor Harold Washington clad only in a bra and panties.

Will it take a court to stand up for the students of Brooklyn College, who, shortly after celebrating what they thought was a successful opening, saw months of work sequestered?

Last Thursday, Brooklyn Parks Commissioner Julius Spiegel abruptly locked up the war memorial in Cadman Plaza Park, which for the last five years has served as an art gallery and the venue for Brooklyn College’s year-end art exhibit.

The commissioner-turned-critic apparently didn’t like the image of a penis with homoerotic overtones or a video on Biblical themes that included sexually-charged footage of Eve in the garden. Next thing the students knew, a locksmith was changing the locks on the gallery, effectively impounding their work.

It took the college the better part of a day to decide how to respond. Then it issued a statement trying to have it both ways: “In keeping with the public nature of the space, as well as its position as an honored war memorial, Brooklyn College has respectfully decided to move the entire student exhibit to our campus. Brooklyn College has a long tradition of educating fine artists. Throughout, the administration of the College has supported our students’ rights to freedom of artistic expression. We are proud to display our student art here at the College.”

Not good enough, said the students. Told the exhibit would be moved to the college library, Marni Kotak, the students’ spokeswoman, noted that many of the 18 works were site-specific and others were too large to be exhibited effectively in the library.

“Clearly the administration of BC is thinking only of covering themselves … rather than taking any kind of stand at all to defend the hard work of us students,” she wrote in an e-mail. “We are generally infuriated by this tactic and are determined to either have our show reopened at the War Memorial or hold BC responsible for covering all costs for moving and reinstalling such an exhibition in another appropriate venue.”

According to city Parks Department spokesman Warner Johnston, the city had an “explicit agreement with the college that because it’s a war memorial and public space, it had to be appropriate for families.” Asked for a copy, he paused, then said there was no written agreement, but a verbal understanding. Colleen Roche, the head of a public relations firm hired by the college, refused to answer questions about the agreement and whether, if it existed, the art department or anyone in the current administration knew of it. The students say no one ever told them about it.

In any event, it is sad to see an institution of higher learning forget the lessons of the past. Only seven years ago, the city was rebuked for trying to intimidate and punish another Brooklyn institution, when a federal judge told Mayor Rudolph Giuliani that he couldn’t force the Brooklyn Museum to abandon the “Sensation” show.

The Giuliani administration then made an argument much like the one the Bloomberg administration is making now. Rejecting the contention that the museum broke its contract with the city to educate school children by showing work not fit for children to see, Judge Nina Gershon wrote, “There is no federal constitutional issue more grave than the effort by government officials to censor works of expression and to threaten the vitality of a major cultural institution as punishment for failing to abide by governmental demands for orthodoxy.”

The job of a university is to educate not only its students but the society it serves. In failing to stand up for its students’ exhibit, Brooklyn College lost an opportunity to explain the role and the nature of art. And it failed in an even more important task: to tell New Yorkers that it’s their job as citizens to judge public expression, and that no matter how provocative or potentially offensive it may be, the government has no business intruding on our ability to do so.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Forget the moralizing, the administration and gallery director violated the law.

1:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What law. I deplore what they did, but what specific violation of law are you talking about? You apparently ain't a lawyer.

3:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I need to hear that Presduient Kimmich approves of how this was handled. Why? Because until I hear otherwise, I will be convinced that when he hears all details, especially the Monday morning ambush, he will be mortified and relieve the Provost of her position and get rid of the PR Counsel Roche who, inadvartantly, has written an exquisite case study on how to mishandle such an incident.

Presdient Kimmich: Say something, say anything.

3:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

now marni is the official spokeswoman?
this saga is so...tiresome...and...predictable...

3:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a clear violation of the first amendment.

3:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a clear violation of the first amendment.

3:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the provost is there to do the president's bidding. that's her job, don't kid yourself. where does the buck stop, if not the president?

3:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the anonymous [but does any "anonymous" even deserve a response?] who inquires, "What law" [sic], I respond, the First Amendment to our fundamental document of government. Where have you been?

No one has to be a lawyer to understand the Constitution, but the profession does come in handy when people forget things and start doing bad stuff. See:

Government censorship is against the law of the land, because after hundreds of years we've finally learned that the alternative is always arbitrary, and a chaotic and messy distraction from real problems, when it's not actually the device of tyranny.

3:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


4:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You missed my point. Of course there is a first amendment and of course this would seem to be a grievous infringement of first amendment rights.

But whether we like it or not, there are a whole host of qualifications and case law around the first amendment and my question was if anyone knew what the specific argument will be that this particular set of facts constitute a first amndment violation as the courts have dedfined such violations.

Get it? I want these people nailed. But the next question if you really want make them pay is to have a specific set of facts that a court would rule is in fact a first amndment violation.

In Giuliani's attack on the Brooklyn Museum, the salient facts that got him nailed were the the sprecific retialiatory acts and witholding of funds in which he engaged.

Tell you whats starting to piss me off: I started outraged by Speigel and the Brookyln College adminsitartion. Still am.

Now I am beginning to wonder if the students, whose art I actually admire, are spohisticated enough not just nto scream about the first amndment but to work with counsel to develop a winning and legally sound strategy to actually make these jerks pay for what they have done.

All I hear on this blog is a bunch of anger (justfied) and amamteur legal opinions.

This is minor league. Work with a competent constitutional lawyer so they really have to pay for what they have done.

4:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I'm not a lawyer. If the exhibit was going to have a movie rating, it wouldn't be more than an R, and is arguably a PG-13. All the talk about gay sex this or that makes it sound like there was some sort of legally-defined obscene material in the exhibit.. yet there wasn't. Especially for New York, nothing crossed any of the standard lines. No penetration, little nudity, and all that.

So what is the reason the Parks guy shut down the exhibit? Because he got the idea of gax sex - or some other idea of sex - from a painting or from a video or sculpture. Does he have the specific authority to do close the space if nothing illegal is going on in it?

All the other stuff just makes it even more screwed up. If the newspapers are right, that guy was actually there when the other artists were there. He could have just said something to someone instead of holding all the work hostage.

Also, not to damaging property belonging to other people, which sees to be what agents of Brooklyn College's administration seem to have done.

I wonder if something along the lines of holding the things hostage, damaging them and like are the specific legal violations.

6:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Norman Siegel is a first amendment specialist. He was I think head of the ACLU, correct? Let him develop the strategy, which he certainly will not be sharing with the opposition or general public. He would not have taken this case, pro bono one can assume, unless it was clear cut.

6:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this sounds like a job for......

7:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

President Kimmich is behind all this the provost is the person doing the dirty work.
I know this for a fact.

7:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course. She works for him. Why is anyone surprised? And who does the gallery director work for?

7:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't it imperative to know the specifics about the verbal agreement made between the college and the parks department?

Why was it verbal and not written? How do we know there was such an agreement? Is it legally binding?
Why were no students aware of it?

Most importantly, who made this agreement and what was their position? Under what/whose authority did they strike this bargain with the Parks Commission?

8:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And what does that make their legal responsibility in this?

8:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


11:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Concerned citizen:

Any agreement verbal or otherwise to restrict the content of the artwork would be uncunstitutional.

10:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This Art Show was equivalent of a thesis? Any Pervert could come up with this stuff! A THESIS! Let's get some standards back into the Colleges

11:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"This Art Show was equivalent of a thesis? Any Pervert could come up with this stuff! A THESIS! Let's get some standards back into the Colleges"

Aside from the incomplete sentence, this post shows how little you know about art school MFA requirements and procedure and advanced education in general.

Yes, presentation of an MFA student's work is equivalent to a written thesis in other disciplines. At BC, Yale, Columbia, UCLA and everywhere else in the county in every MFA program this is exactly what the requirement is.

Get a life. Better yet, get an education. Asshole.

12:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a current MFA graduate student I support the students 100 percent.

6:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What the fuck students?

You are just gonna take the damn space in dumbo and then ask around like a beggar for trucks to take the stuff from Brooklyn College lockdown? Where the fuck are your spines? The motherfucking school should hire up some damn art handlers at least.

Am I missing something? Or are you just so enamored with any bone that gets thrown your way? Fucking don't deal with the college and fucking make a case. Any of you could have a damn show in chelsea now if you just pick up the damn phone.

Student on phone to Chelsea Gallery:
"I've been censored by my school and the parks department and have been thinking of taking the space in yuppie DUMBO that they threw at us."

Dealer:"Fuck that shit, all y'all can show in our space! It'll be great!"

Come on guys.

7:02 PM  
Blogger jennifert72 said...

i appreciate your anger at the situation. but if you think a gallerist in chelsea out of the goodness of their heart is going to drop their planned for shows (not to mention the artist that thought they were having their show) to exhibit an mfa show, you really have no experience in the new york art world. it's a minor miracle that they were able to get a space big enough (and at the right price) on such short notice at all.

1:51 PM  
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