Florida, California officials find Clinton/Lewinsky art unfit for public exhibition

Tuesday, September 18, 2001
Acrylic painting by Ted Lay titled “Famous Tongue Mona Al Monica” is shown in Naples, Fla., Aug. 7. It’s one of two paintings satirizing Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky at center of free-speech debate.

Artwork inspired by the sex scandal involving former president Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky has recently sparked free-speech debates in Florida and California.

In California, a sexually suggestive sculpture of Clinton and Lewinsky called “Loose Lips Sink Ships” was pulled from the California State Fair in Sacramento on Aug. 10.

Peter Langenbach’s satirical artwork depicts a nude Clinton in a bathtub smoking a cigar. “At the other end of the tub is Monica Lewinsky trying to keep her head above water,” said Gregory Barton, owner of the Barton Gallery in Sacramento, where the work is currently on display. In the piece, nine sharks that represent the U.S. Supreme Court justices, surround Lewinsky, Barton said.

The annual State Fair was held in Sacramento Aug. 17 through Sept. 3.

After five State Fair representatives determined that Langenbach’s work was “unfit” for exhibition, the sculpture, which won an award for best sculpture at the fair, was banned from the event, said Brian May, assistant general manager of the fair, the Sacramento Bee reported on Aug. 11. The work was “offensive to some people and inappropriate for children,” May said.

Yanking the artwork from the fair was “disappointing” and “petty,” said Langenbach, a San Francisco Bay Area middle school art teacher, as quoted in the Bee. “It caught me totally by surprise,” he said. “Obviously, people were offended by the situation — the actual event. But this is political satire.”

Barton came to the rescue and put Langenbach’s piece on display at his gallery from mid-August until early September. Barton said he called Langenbach as soon as he heard that the work was being removed from the fair.

Langenbach’s work consists of several satirical representations of politicians and other famous people, Barton told freedomforum.org. “It’s art. It’s not at all obscene or offensive,” he said.

Barton Gallery visitors found the sculpture amusing, Barton said. The piece was featured in a local NBC news report and the artist may soon be featured on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” he said.

May could not be reached for comment.

In Naples, Fla., the von Liebig Art Center, located in a city park, decided to keep on display two paintings that poke fun at Clinton and Lewinsky, despite a request by the City Council that the works be removed.

The paintings, created by East Naples artist Ted Lay, were featured in a pop art show at the center from July 20 through Sept. 1.

Under the center’s lease, the City Council can censor works that it finds violate “community standards.”

City Councilman Fred Tarrant, who is blind, asked the council to seek the paintings’ removal in early August after he received more than 25 calls from constituents who found them to be too explicit, Tarrant told freedomforum.org.

The piece that spurred the most complaints — a 30-by-24 inch acrylic painting called “Famous Tongue Mona Al Monica” — depicts Lewinsky, Einstein and the Mona Lisa sticking out their tongues.

At an Aug. 14 council meeting, Tarrant and the other six council members said the work was in bad taste, the Naples Daily News reported. Some art center visitors and City Council members said Lewinsky’s tongue looked like a penis, Tarrant said.

But Lay, who says his work is not explicit, claims the tongue is just a tongue. “Pornography is in the eye of the beholder,” Lay was quoted as saying in an Aug. 9 Daily News article.

The artist’s second painting, “Christmas Card for Monica,” shows Clinton wearing a coat, tie and boxer shorts decorated with the Stars and Stripes, with his legs spread.

“I don’t see anything constructive about the message at all,” said Tarrant. “Clinton is not an icon of virtue in the United States. He disgraced the White House and the country.”

But Barbara Hill, director of the Naples Arts Association, which manages the
art center, says not everyone in the community shares Tarrant’s interpretation of the paintings.

“Literally hundreds of people have come in and no one thought to register a complaint except one person,” Hill told the Daily News. “Now you tell me what the community standard is.”

In 1995 the association signed a lease with the city of Naples to construct the art center on city property. The city leased the land to the center for 100 years. A clause in the lease agreement allows the City Council to question art that does not meet “community standards,” but those standards have not been defined.

After he received complaints about Lay’s paintings, Tarrant requested that council members define “community standards.”

But Councilman Gary Galleberg objected, saying that defining the community standards would “clearly violate First Amendment protections,” the Daily News reported.

At its Sept. 4 meeting, the council voted not to define those standards.

“That reference to community standards seems to be an inherent safeguard for both parties,” Jane Dunn, an attorney and board member of the center, was quoted as saying in a Sept. 5 Daily News article. “It seems the provision is not meant to be used as a club by a vocal minority who may disapprove of an item or artwork on display.”

According to Tarrant, the lease agreement states that if at least one of the seven City Council members decides that artwork displayed at the center violates community standards, the council must send a request to Mayor Bonnie MacKenzie, in writing, asking that the matter be discussed at no less than two public hearings. A copy of the letter must also be sent to NAA officials, Tarrant said.

After hearing comments at the public meetings, the council would vote on the issue during one of its official weekly council sessions, Tarrant said. If at least four council members decide the art does not meet community standards, the council would inform NAA officials that they have a year to take down the art. If the NAA did not comply, the City Council could “take action” to terminate the lease, Tarrant said.

But the council never formally notified NAA officials that it was displeased with Lay’s work, Jeannette Kessler, NAA president, told freedomforum.org. Officials at the art center read about Tarrant’s complaints in newspaper accounts, she said. The council also never held a public meeting to discuss the matter, she said.

“But I’m sure it won’t happen again. Everything has been settled peacefully,” Kessler said.

Tarrant told freedomforum.org the City Council would follow lease-agreement procedure in the future and that the council looked forward to working harmoniously with art center officials.

He also said he did not believe the community-standards clause threatened First Amendment freedoms.

“The land is paid for by taxpayers,” said Tarrant. “I wouldn’t care what they show at a private gallery. But this is public property. The paintings are gross.”

But First Amendment experts say the legality of such lease agreements isn’t so clear-cut.

“The constitutionality of municipal lease agreements that try to control art that’s displayed on government property through vague references to community standards and the like is very much an open question — it depends on the facts of particular cases and how they’re interpreted by particular judges,” said Marjorie Heins, director of the Free Expression Policy Project of the National Coalition Against Censorship.

“But one thing is certain: Intolerance for art that’s satiric, controversial and thought-provoking is very much at odds with the spirit of the First Amendment,” she told freedomforum.org.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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