Who decides what art is?

Friday, March 31, 2000

Norman Siegel...
Norman Siegel

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Art has the power to stimulate the mind, stir the
soul, delight the senses — and make people really mad.

Panelists at a discussion on “Art and Free Expression” last night at the University of North Carolina shared their experiences in a culture war being waged in legislatures, art galleries and courtrooms across the nation over who gets to decide “what is art?” The discussion was part of the First Amendment Center’s First Amendment Days, a two-day conference at UNC to provoke discussion of free expression.

The art question goes to the very heart of the First Amendment, according to
Norman Siegel of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Freedom, if not
exercised, can atrophy,” he said. “Freedom in theory is not necessarily
freedom in practice.”

Although art is not explicitly mentioned in the 45 words of the First Amendment to the Constitution, courts have consistently found that artistic
expression is constitutionally protected, said Siegel, who represented
the Brooklyn Museum of Art in its recent fight with New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Giuliani attempted to cut the museum’s funding because of its “Sensation” exhibit, which included works that the mayor and others found offensive on religious and moral grounds.

“There is no constitutional right to public funding of the arts;
however, once the city of New York makes a decision to fund the arts …
they cannot unconstitutionally de-fund or penalize” museums over
artistic content, Siegel said, “because one of the core principles
of the constitution is that government must be neutral on the content of

Hoyle Martin...
Hoyle Martin

But Hoyle Martin of the Urban Christian Ministry in Charlotte, N.C.,
said government had an obligation to do exactly the opposite: to
“restrict sinfulness for the greater good.”

Martin, who as a member of the Mecklenburg County Commission sponsored a
proposal to cut government funding to public museums if they displayed
certain kinds of art, said “the government does have to determine
morality — under God’s authority.”

“From the Supreme Court on down to the local government, standards are
established on moral grounds. Based on that, I said that it was not
right to use public funds to put on immoral foolishness,” Martin said.

But Martin and the other panelists agreed that what is “immoral
foolishness” to one person may be thought-provoking art to another.

Herman Brannen...
Herman Brannen

Artist Herman Brannen of Raleigh said he never dreamed that his metal
sculpture, titled “Adam and Eve,” could offend someone. “I certainly
never set out to create a piece so controversial,” he said. Brannen’s
cartoonish Adam features a corkscrew-shaped penis, and his Eve is
depicted touching her nipple.

The North Carolina state community college system recently planned an art exhibit at its headquarters in Raleigh and asked Brannen to submit slides. The colleges chose “Adam and Eve” to be included in the show. But a few days after his piece arrived, he said, “I got a call from the woman who was running the exhibit. She said, ‘We have a problem: Your work is too graphic. We’d like to exchange it for something less graphic.’ ”

“I said, ‘I don’t think I want to exchange it,’ ” Brannen said. After
contacting a lawyer at the ACLU, who in turn contacted the community
college representative, Brannen heard nothing further about
exchanging his work. But at the show’s opening, he found “Adam and Eve”
in an office, away from the exhibit area. “They did technically have it
on display. I never got a direct answer about who was offended by it.”

Susan Talbott...
Susan Talbott

Susan Talbott, a former official of the National Endowment for the Arts
who now directs the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa, said Brannen’s
situation wasn’t unusual in the post-Mapplethorpe era of tension between
the art world and government. Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe became a
lightning rod in the 1980s when his works came under fire from North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms and others. Some of Mapplethorpe’s works depicted
homoerotic scenes, including a self-portrait of the artist with a
bullwhip inserted into his anus.

At the NEA, Talbott and her colleagues were dismayed to see Helms
threatening the agency’s very existence over such art. But now, she
said, she realizes that her reaction was self-defeating. “I fell on the
side of my colleagues who were deeply upset at the total lack of support
for the creative experience,” she said. “That was our mistake at the NEA — digging in our heels. Refusing to have a dialogue (about artistic
merit and public funding) was our downfall.”

Such an attitude reinforces the public’s idea of “the elitist snobbism
of the art world,” she added, which may contribute to citizens’ anger
over tax money going to work that they may find offensive.

But Talbott also criticized public officials who attack art they’ve
never seen or tried to understand. “Without understanding the context
and the artist’s cultural background, we’re quick to jump on something
and attack it.”

Siegel pointed out that everyone has the right to criticize art, for
whatever reason. But he urged citizens to challenge assertions from
public officials who say they know what’s best for the community. “When
you hear the arguments, it shouldn’t be difficult for you to tackle
those issues. Good ideas will drive bad ideas out.”

Brannen agreed. “If I see something that offends me, I have the right to
turn around and leave.”

The discussion was held as part of the First Amendment Center’s First
Amendment Days, a two-day conference at UNC to provoke discussion of
free expression.

First Amendment Days 2000

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

·Civil rights brought ‘first freedoms’ together 4.3.00
·Press freedom lets minority voices be heard 4.3.00
·Controls, access problems keep Internet from total freedom 3.31.00
·Battling over what goes on kids’ library shelves 3.31.00
·Who decides what art is? 3.31.00
·The Freedom Forum and First Amendment Center present First Amendment Days: A Celebration and Exploration of the First Amendment 3.20.00
·Agenda 3.20.00