Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Purpose of an Art Display

Houston's M2 gallery hosted an exhibition entitled "Justice For All" back in February that featured art by inmates on death row and other artists dealing with the death penalty. Via comes news that two works from that exhibition that were later selected to be shown at the Texas state capital building were subsequently removed by an upset state representative:

Texas executes more people than any other state, and state legislators don’t like being criticized for it, either. Houston’s Democratic representative Borris Miles personally removed two artworks from an exhibition organized at the Texas capital building by the anti-death-penalty group the Texas Moratorium Network. Miles refuses to return the works, claiming that the images are inappropriate for children. The works in question are a painting of a hanged man, and an illustration of a man in an electric chair featuring the ironic inscription, "Doing God’s Work."

The State Preservation Board, which regulates art shows in the Capital building, requires that exhibitions call attention to public issues, and have the sponsorship of a member of the legislature -- in this case, Miles’ fellow Democrat Harold Dutton, who has declined to take a stand defending the censored works. Texas Moratorium Network president Scott Cobb told the Austin American-Statesman newspaper that Miles had no right to censor the artworks -- and that the lawmaker should have at least gone through the proper channels to lodge a complaint.
The Houston Chronicle has more on this sorry turn of events:

In e-mail to House colleagues Monday, Miles wrote: "I was greeted with these images as I walked through the halls of the (Capitol) Extension this morning with my two children, ages five and eight. I consider them to be extremely inappropriate and highly objectionable.

"Capitol exhibits are supposed to serve a public purpose or be informational in nature. These pictures were hung with no accompanying text or explanation," wrote Miles, D-Houston.

"We should not prevent the display of art," he said. "But there have to be limits."


On Tuesday, Miles delivered the pieces to Dutton, who said he does not recall sponsoring the exhibit.

"It doesn't bother me whether it's up or down," Dutton said. Avoiding the display of artworks that anyone deemed objectionable, he said, might defeat the whole purpose of an art display.

To my mind, Miles provided the easiest resolution to this stand-off himself. Return the works to the exhibition with some accompanying text that explains, in essence, "Texas executes more people than any other state, and state legislators don’t like being criticized for it." Then the next time Miles walks through with his children he can explain to them why state legisltators don't like being criticized for that record.

This, of course, taps into a larger issue about denial and owning up to one's choices. In an excellent analysis of the issue on the
Houston Chronicle's blog, John Whiteside nails it:

It's interesting to me how we sometimes don't want to look at things we support. So while we have the death penalty in Texas, and use it more vigorously than many other states, we don't seem to want to be reminded of it, or see it happening.

I think we need to be willing to look at ugly things that we believe are necessary. Part of making difficult choices - whether it's empowering the government to end a life, sending our people to war, or standing by while some of us work in dangerous conditions to produce things that the rest of us need - means acknowledging those choices.

And so my gut reaction to this is that if you want the death penalty, you need to be willing to be reminded that sometimes we kill people because we think it's the right thing to do.
And so yes, the purpose of a public art display is often to help us look at things openly and honestly. To see a reflection of what and who we are. So long as the work reflects truth, don't blame the artist or exhibition co-ordinator if you don't like what you see.
Justice For All exhibition, Annie Feldmeier Adams (Chicago, IL).

Labels: art viewing, challenging art


Anonymous ml said...

In elementary school my class in Jackson, Mississippi was taken to the Old Capitol, a museum of state history, mostly Civil War stuff. One of the paintings, a large one, was of Union soldiers burning buildings with people in them. It was horrific to a child. I had nightmares for months about it. I wonder, though, if children now, who are exposed to war nightly on the news and movies/tv programs with sadistic killings, would have the same response.

Our entertainment industry is built on violence. How can a painting possibly be worse than the crime shows?

3/15/2007 11:45:00 AM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...


The question you pose in your comment is a good, if discouraging one. Reading it, I thought back to an old post of mine (from two years ago), in which I rambled on about a number of things, including slaughter house rules, computer assisted hunting ranches, SWORDS (robotic, remote controlled killing machines used by the U.S. military) and a then new video game called "JFK Reloaded," in which players attempt to assinsate JFK. (I included an excerpt below.) Frankly, that any medium still has the power to offend our layered sensibilities is surprising....and that's not good.

"This morning, on my subway ride to work, I read that the makers of the videogame, 'JFK Reloaded,' are offering a $100,000 prize to the gamer that can most convincingly re-create the 1963 Dallas assassination of John Kennedy.

There is a common thread here. 'JFK Reloaded' allows us to kill a digital Kennedy as often as we like, trying to make that "perfect shot." To enjoy such a game, where the target is not only based on a real person – not a faceless 'enemy' - but a well-known person who was assassinated relatively recently, the gamer must abstract his or her sense of morality. Our culture, as any right-wing religious zealot will tell you, is experiencing a moral schism. Murder, even for our soldiers in Iraq, is becoming an abstraction. From fist to blade, blade to spear, spear to arrow, arrow to bullet, bullet to...what? How can you describe a system whereby the man-boy assassinating JFK on the computer screen might as well be gunning down Iraqis with a SWORD or knocking off a big buck on a Texas game farm? For that matter, is not the murder of the pixel proxy similar to the pricking of a voodoo doll? A clear association is made by the gamer; the digitized image on the screen - your quarry - represents a flesh-and-blood human. When you pull the plastic trigger and assassinate JFK, that's that. You can turn off the gaming console and hit the sack. No police will show up at your door. No post traumatic stress disorder will accompany your return to civilian life. No bang. Just a click.

The disconnect between animal and meat on the plate is but part of the problem; with every passing month, the disconnect between hand and killing becomes more ingrained in our culture and, as I see it, such a trend does not bode well for empathy. With less empathy in the world, abstraction of the 'other,' already a natural inclination, becomes that much more easy. This leads, of course, to more violence."

3/15/2007 02:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like it when art is front page news.

Whatever it takes dear, whatever it takes......


3/15/2007 03:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Almost as good as a VG:

3/16/2007 03:42:00 AM  
Blogger John Holdway said...

I have to believe that the images themselves wouldn't have the power they do without knowing that were made by death row inmates. Their importance comes from the story. Added censorship can only enhance the story.

3/16/2007 12:19:00 PM  

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