Michigan artist Jef Bourgeau speaks out against censorship

Friday, July 14, 2000
Jef Bourgeau

“The level of artistic freedom is quite low” in this country, says
Michigan artist Jef Bourgeau, whose “FEAR NO ART” exhibit prompted obscenity
charges — now dismissed — against him.

Pontiac police cited Bourgeau on March 4, accusing him of allowing a
public display of obscenity in a gallery located under the city’s new Museum of
Contemporary Art. The city ordinance carries a maximum penalty of 90 days in
jail and a $500 fine.

Though the misdemeanor charges were dismissed, Bourgeau says he may
file a civil suit against the city for violating his First Amendment rights.

“The ACLU is planning to file a civil suit if the city does not
respond to our request of a public apology,” he said.

“In other words, the city attorney left it on the record that the work
exhibited in the ‘FEAR NO ART’ was obscene,” he said. “We would simply like
them to admit it was art and therefore exempt under the ordinance. Just say it
was art.”

Bourgeau said that this spring was the first time he was ever charged
with obscenity, though last February the Detroit Institute for Arts paid him
$12,500 as compensation for canceling his exhibit “Art Until Now.”

The new director of the Detroit museum feared that Bourgeau’s exhibit,
which contained the work of several controversial artists including Andres
Serrano’s photo of a crucifix submerged in urine, would offend many in the

The Pontiac exhibit, which prompted the obscenity charge, contained a
collage of nudes from the artwork of Serrano, Sally Mann, Balthus and other

“The art world has become Disneyfied,” Bourgeau said. “It’s become an
entertainment. And so, children have become a big factor in deciding [to
protect a] segment [of the audience] from the most challenging aspects of art.
The supposed motivation isn’t to protect the adult viewer from an adult nude,
but [to protect] the child and the innocent and the religious.”

Bourgeau says the low level of freedom artists now have is due
“ironically in large part to the freedoms artists have pushed for in the last
10 years.”

“The culture wars acted as a sort of challenge to many artists,” he
said. “Their freedom was being tested. So, they fought back the only way they
could, by pushing their art even further.”

Bourgeau blames government officials and their public relations people
for many of the attacks on contemporary art. “Governments and officials and
even museums have large P.R. departments that ultimately control what is
disseminated in the press and so help to shape the public perception of what
contemporary art is. Most often, it is tagged as outrageous and useless to the
greater glory of man. And artists are seen as social anarchists rather than
cultural analysts.”

Bourgeau believes that there needs be a better understanding and
appreciation of contemporary art. He says that the answer is “education” and
“more visibility.”

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