Saturday, December 18, 2010

Antiwar Street Artist Censored By LA Musuem

Is it censorship of artists or was the director correct?

From Denny: Art. You either love it or hate it. Over the generations the definition of art has shifted. Sometimes, it's about just the fact you can evoke an emotion and that elevates anything to the level of "art." Well, for me it has to rise higher than just eliciting a reaction from the viewer. I look for a kind of beauty in art.

Some of the questions I ask are:

* Is it a beauty of the thought that is the theme of the work?
* Is it an incredibly well done expression of a particular technique?
* Does it contain an enlightening message to ponder?
* Is it simply beautiful in line, form or symmetry?

Street art can often be less appreciated when it suddenly appears on the side of a small business owner's building. And so it gets whitewashed by an angry shopkeeper. We may not agree with the business owner but we can understand his concern for how the art might turn off potential customers and therefore hurt his livelihood.

What is strange is when a world renowned museum, Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, commissions what it knows to be a street artist and then censors his work.  What was considered so controversial?  It's a stunningly simple wall-sized mural of a field of military-style coffins draped not with flags but with dollar bills.  The message is clear: Soldiers don't die for high ideals but rather for Big Business greed and profit.

The mural was painted by famous Italian street artist Blu. The art definitely is a strong anti-war and anti-capitalist statement. It was originally commissioned for the north wall of the Geffen Contemporary as part of its "Art in the Streets" exhibition, set to open in April.

There were no complaints lodged against the art, yet upon completion, the museum sent over a cleanup crew to literally whitewash it.  Now there's a statement in and of itself.  Of course, the street art community is talking about this censorship and quite upset by the rejection of the truth of the art.

From Daniel Lahoda, founder of LA Freewalls Project, "If you're planning on mounting the largest graffiti show in a major institution, you've got to give the artists the freedom to do the movement justice — so there's a big failure in what just happened. The last thing we want is an art institution, someone supposed to support creativity, to destroy it."

The official statement from the museum director, Jeffrey Deitch, was they removed the mural because it was deemed "inappropriate."  Apparently, the director thought it was a sensitive situation since the building is close by the Veterans Affairs building and the Go For Broke Monument that commemorates the heroic roles of Japanese American soldiers.

"This is 100 percent about my effort to be a good, responsible, respectful neighbor in this historic community," Deitch said. "Out of respect for someone who is suffering from lung cancer, you don't sit in front of them and start chain smoking."

"Look at my gallery website. I have supported protest art more than just about any other mainstream gallery in the country. But as a steward of a public institution, I have to balance a different set of priorities — standing up for artists and also considering the sensitivities of the community."

Museum director Deitch  rejects the talk of censorship. "This shouldn't be blown up into something larger than it is," he says, describing a curator's prerogative to pick and choose what goes into a show. "Every aspect of the show involves a very considered discussion."

It does make you wonder why this director was willing to squelch the creativity. Was a board member or big donor offended and threatened to pull huge funding? It does make you wonder. Was it an insult to those who have served in the military? Perhaps.

But a larger issue here is the reality that too many wars begin from a clash of big egos and continue for many long years like our own Iraq and Afghanistan Wars of a decade now - all because of war profiteering. Maybe if it was an accepted reality from the average person in America that this was more true over fighting war over ideals it would be fewer people willing to fight war-for-profit wars just to make someone rich with someone else's blood.

According to Deitch, there was a problem with a lack of input from the museum to the artist before the work began. Deitch and Blu could not coordinate their schedules and Blu ended up working on the painting without a set agreement in place. When Deitch saw the work half completed he made the decision he would take it down once it was photographed for the exhibition's catalog. Deitch, who worked with Blu once before says they remain "on friendly terms." Read that as "Hey, we will pay you for your work but don't ever proceed on a project without my permission again." Deitch claims he is holding that wall for Blu to paint again but Blu says he is not sure he wants to do it.

There is no official comment from Blu. On his website is a photo of the LA museum's very pristine whitewashed blank wall. Blu placed this caption under it: "a really nice, big wall in downtown L. A." A blank expression devoid of artistic statement says a lot considering the controversy over censorship. Perhaps Blu has thrown out the invitation to fellow street artists to give a reply.

*** Photo by Casey Caplowe

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