Public Art at Work: Democracy Untested is Democracy Denied
Published in: Exposure, The Journal of the Society of Photographic Education
Summer 1990, Volume 27, Number 3
Through our collaborative work as public artists, we have engaged the narrative of power which governs San Diego. We not only seek to make visible the network that creates this narrative of power, but also to make clear how civil rights in our city are subverted by corporate agendas and the tourist industry. We wish to participate in the definition of our city, and to encourage the presence of other voices and perspectives. In the pursuit of this aim, while working to create a genuine public space for our work, we have revealed the city’s practice of limiting constitutional liberties, especially freedom of expression.
All of our projects raise questions relevant to the current debate surrounding public art, de facto racism, and censorship. Our work lays bare sensitive areas that the local interlocking power structure of government, industry, and press would prefer to ignore. This power structure attempts to delegitimate us as political actors, and therefore we must create new ways to control the meaning of our work and its presentation. The press frequently attempts to shift the focus of our work from politics to personality, from societal racism to what some commentators see as our hypocrisy as middle-class critics of the power structure. To defy these attempts to trivialize our work, and to increase the public that our artwork serves, we have found it necessary to improvise constantly.
Our first public project was the bus poster, Welcome to America’s Finest Tourist Plantation (1988), which addressed the role of undocumented workers in San Diego’s tourist-based economy. We then created Welcome to America’s Finest a) City b) Tourist Plantation or c) Convention Center (l989), a billboard which addressed the city’s relationship to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Our most recent project was the media campaign and street performance Welcome Back Emma (1989), an historical reenactment of the I.W.W.’s (Industrial Workers of the World) struggle against racism, and the fight for free speech in San Diego in 1912.
In September 1989, several San Diego artists organized a large group exhibition, No Stomach, to address the then-pending Helms amendment. We created the following essay for the show to articulate our opposition to censorship in the arts, including the censorship of the gallery which sponsored our billboard project.
Censorship and the San Diego Connection
Every time I hear the word culture I reach for my pistol.
-attributed to Hermann Goering
Jesse Helms and Company have their six-guns loaded, pointed, and ready to fire, and their bullets aren’t blanks. Congressional recommendations to punish organizations that have funded and exhibited artwork by Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe are extraordinary acts of ex post facto censorship, but no more dramatic than what is happening in San Diego. The abuse of power by politicians who restrict and control art that is controversial, provocative, and critical is already the status quo locally.
In San Diego, politicians have what Helms can only dream of-final approval on funding to artists and art organizations. San Diego doesn’t need six-guns, not with Mayor O’Connor and her eight City Council cohorts who approve or reject funding to protect the city’s corporate agenda and tourist industry. In May, the San Diego Council’s Public Service and Safety Committee (PSSC) “just said no” to a recommendation by the city’s own Commission for Arts and Culture to fund San Diego’s Installation Gallery. The PSSC withdrew $42,000 in funding intended for Installation, hoping to punish the gallery for sponsoring a controversial work of public art, our billboard addressing San Diego’s relationship to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Later, when the full council narrowly overturned the PSSC’s decision and restored $37,500 to Installation, the Council still restricted the use of those funds, thereby retaining control over the arts.
Politically, the crusade against the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] displaces scandal and charges of dishonesty from the attackers
to those attacked.
-Carole S. Vance, “The War on Culture,” Art in Americam (Sept. 1989)
The Helms Amendment is not about censorship vs. freedom of speech. It is about adding to the level of censorship that now exists. Congressional attempts to limit artistic freedom of expression constrict participation in already narrowed debates. (Witness, for example, the absence of social critic Noam Chomsky from the editorial pages of major American newspapers, or the continued banishment of novelist Gore Vidal from network television twenty years after his on-the-air skirmish with William F. Buckley, Jr.) Our access to information will be even more limited in the near future. According to media analyst Ben Bagdikian, five to ten corporations will control production of most of the world’s information, including newspapers, magazines, books, data bases, broadcast stations, movies, recordings, and video cassettes. The people who would limit artistic freedom of expression in the name of decency, morality, and the American way are the same crew who support the corporate agenda of maximized profits. Helms finds “evil” in government funding for the arts, but “good” in government subsidies for the tobacco industry. Anyone who suggests otherwise-that what’s good for corporate America is not necessarily good for the community-is automatically labeled disloyal and subversive.
We live in an era when it is far more respectable to restrict constitutional rights than to defend the liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. But pointing the finger exclusively at Helms suppresses inquiry into the social climate that makes the elimination of First Amendment rights possible. It absolves Helms’ congressional partners of their complicity in undercutting freedom of expression, their responsibility for eroding democratic values, and their culpability for undermining institutions like the NEA. Freedom of expression is already diminished by the censorship implicit in corporate funding for the arts. Now the government, in lock-step with corporations, wants to tighten the noose of censorship by eliminating funding for dissenting voices.
The ease with which we focus on the point man for the conservative agenda can blind us to the need to look critically at the very institutions we are supporting against congressional attack. Museums and galleries are already in the business of censoring art. Demonization of Helms diverts attention from the fact that museums and galleries are not bastions of free expression. Museums still promote racial separation, social hierarchies, and cultural hegemony. The challenge to artists is not merely to defeat the Helms Amendment, but to restructure cultural gatekeeping institutions so they fully represent the diversity of our society.
I kept giving them credit for being our kind of people, but they’re dictators! They’re people who will try to hold power even if they have to poison the town to do it.
—Dr. Stockmann in Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People
In San Diego, the narrowing of diversity at the national level is mirrored in the local trend toward homogenization of thought. City promoters aim to further the entertainment model of discourse, viewing all issues through the twin lenses of public relations and consumerist marketing strategies. City officials rationalize existing social, economic, and political relationships by constantly referring to San Diego as “America’s Finest City,” a rhetorical mantra that sanctifies the status quo. Thus art that is critical of San Diego, according to city officials, subverts America’s Finest City. The city council wants to promote civic pride and consensus through fabricated postcard images of San Diego rather than through extended discussion about pressing local issues.
As public artists, our work seeks to preserve and expand constitutional liberties in general and freedom of expression in particular; in addition, we aim through our work to expose the local power structure that subverts these rights in favor of corporations and the tourist industry. We insist on participating in the definition of our city rather than accepting the fantasy image conjured for marketing. As part of our commitment to the real issues San Diego confronts, both as a major border region and as a growing metropolis, we have created a series of public artworks. These artworks have had broad repercussions, including censorship by the city.
1987 was a pivotal year in San Diego. The city began construction on the West Coast’s largest convention center. It also won the bid to host the following year’s Superbowl, to be held on January 31, 1988. On Januarv 4, 1988, our poster with the greeting “Welcome to America’s Finest Tourist Plantation” appeared on the back of half the buses operated by San Diego Transit.
This appropriation of the city’s self-aggrandizing slogan was superimposed on a triptych of photographs. The central image was of a Border Patrol agent handcuffing two Mexican men arrested on a San Diego Transit bus. To the left and to the right of this image were photographs of the hands of a dishwasher and a chambermaid, representing the undocumented and invisible workers of the tourist industry.
The image was unavoidable. Clearly intended to provoke controversy and media scrutiny, the poster was delivered to people’s homes via television, and radio, and the daily newspaper. San Diego’s self-promotion apparatus exploded with criticism and the news media jumped, fueling the controversy and activating the artwork.
The poster served as a catalyst for public debate. Our intention was to focus this debate on the racism implicit in building a tourist economy by exploiting an undocumented labor force. However, in San Diego, the city hotel-motel tax is used to fund works of art; the fact that our work was in part sponsored through this tax created the loudest protests from the warden’s of San Diego’s official image. “I have trouble using taxpayers’ dollars to put down this beautiful city of San Diego,” said Councilwoman Gloria McColl.
The city’s repressive apparatus was mobilized through a series of behind-the-scenes and public actions designed to censor our examination of the underpinnings of the local economy:
1) Pressure by the mayor’s office on the Metropolitan Transit Development Board (MTDB) to remove the poster.
2) Calls from San Diego Channels 8 and 39‹broadcast over each station-demanding that the MTDB remove the poster.
3) Reassurances from the city council that, through the establishment of a Commission for Arts and Culture, city money would never again be allocated for such artworks.
4) Revision of MTDB policies to allow the rejection of any images critical of any law enforcement agencies.
5) Investigation by the California Legislative Council, at the request of State Assemblyperson Larry Stirling (R-San Diego), to determine whether public funds could be used to support opinions critical of the city. (No illegality found.)
In April 1989, with a $100 budget from Installation Gallery in San Diego and billboard space donated by Gannett Outdoor Advertising, we created Welcome to America’s Finest a) City b) Tourist Plantation c) Convention Center. The project addressed the city’s inability to find a fitting tribute for the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. City officials proposed that the new convention center be named after King, but later changed their minds when their Port Commissioners voted against it. In this effort to avoid controversy, city officials clearly demonstrated whose voices matter-certainly not those of the African-American community or those who want the city to acknowledge its diversity.
In our effort to contribute to this public debate, we experienced
yet another attempt by the city to stifle controversy, and we were threatened with corporate censorship. Declaring that the billboard was not art, Gannett tried to get Installation Gallery to remove the artwork. Two months later, city officials voted to defund Installation. When City Council member Ron Roberts was asked
by The San Diego Union if Installation’s money was cut because of budgetary problems or because of his opposition to the billboard, Roberts replied, “I guess I would have to admit to both. I’ll be stupid enough to do that.” In the debate surrounding the denial
of funds to Installation, Roberts stated, “The First Amendment says that there should be free speech… It doesn’t mean that the City Council has to be paying for that.”
Although part of the funds slated for Installation were eventually provided to the gallery, the fallout from this project has blanketed the art community with worry over future funding and self-censorship. Asked by the Village Voice if he would work with us on a billboard project in the future, Hugh Davies, director of the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, stated that if “[they] don’t get anyone to pick up their next billboard, it’ll be because we’re all cowed by the prospect of censorship.”
The lords of the global village have their own political agenda. All resist economic changes that do not support their own financial interests. Together, they exert a homogenizing power over ideas, cultures, and commerce that affects populations larger than any
—Ben Bagdikian, “The Lords of the Global Village,” The Nation (June 12, 1989)
We see ourselves as participants in a democracy, not as an audience in a San Diegoland version of our city. We feel that a multiplicity of voices and perspectives are basic to the health of any democracy. But instead of a dialogue contributing to the planning of upcoming San Diego events, we hear the single voice of Mayor Maureen O’Connor. In keeping with the trend toward cultural engineering, the Mayor has taken it upon herself to become lord of the city’s cultural village.
For the San Diego Arts Festival, local politicians have gone beyond censorship. Censorship restricts the right of expression. In San Diego, the arts community has not been restricted, but eliminated. The Mayor, as corporate raider, has appointed herself the board of directors, the museum administrator, and the curatorial staff for the entire upcoming Festival, which will celebrate the “Treasures of the Soviet Union.” She did not seek approval for the Festival from the City Commission on Arts and Culture. She used the machinery of her office to establish a separate corporate entity, San Diego Festivals, Inc., and convinced the city to give this corporation $3 million of taxpayer money, and gained a commitment from the city to raise a matching amount from local corporations. O’Connor also appointed all festival executives, who report to her. She has extended this bureaucratic purview by incorporating the staffs of all cultural institutions that will participate in the Festival. And finally, she has assumed dictatorial authority in decisions about which events will or will not be a part of the Festival. She has formed her own San Diego Ministry of Culture to centralize and control the content and character of a festival that should involve full community participation.
In the year of a Soviet arts festival, it’s particularly ironic and depressing that a form of censorship we associate with totalitarian regimes should be visited on a San Diego institution [Installation] that has pioneered free speech in our community. -Hugh Davies, “America’s finest censors or just plain budget cut?,”The San Diego Union (June 5,1989)
Some politicians want us to believe that because they are able to appropriate funding for the arts, they should be able to appropriate the rights of artists. We must resist the sophisticated organizational tactics of those who would impose a conservative agenda. In San Diego we must take concerted actions to eliminate the abuse and censorship that exists within the local process of public funding for the arts. The City Council of San Diego must get out of the censorship business, and must trust their own Commission on the Arts and Culture to establish a fair and equitable process of review which avoids politicization. The Commission should evaluate the problems created by Mayor O’Connor’s San Diego Festivals, Inc., and individual politicians must be discouraged from forming their own cultural apparatuses. Finally, the arts community must define its rightful place in the creation of San Diego’s cultural identity. Democracy untested is democracy denied.
In keeping with our commitment to participate in San Diego’s cultural identity, we applied for and received a 1989 Inter-Arts NEA grant to create a series of works addressing San Diego’s historic struggles for freedom of expression. In the first of these works, the full-page advertisement for a street performance was censored by San Diego’s largest newspaper, The San Diego Union. It subsequently ran in a local weekly paper, with a new headline declaring: “THE AD THE SAN DIEGO UNION DOESN’T WANT YOU TO SEE.” The performance went on as planned, drawing 200 people out into the streets of downtown San Diego to commemorate the 1912 Free Speech movement. In the fall of 1990, our group will address the relationship in San Diego between migrant labor and urban development.
Shortly after the ad was censored, Elizabeth Sisco, a member of the collaboration, resigned from an NEA Visual Arts Organizations panel review, claiming that the peer review process had been subverted by internal censorship of so-called controversial grant applications. In an effort to expand community awareness about current NEA practices and to foster a climate hospitable to dialogue and debate, we recently organized a forum in San Diego to discuss censorship issues. (This forum included Philip Brookman, curator for the Washington Project for the Arts, the gallery that sponsored the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition after the Corcoran’s cancellation.)
To continue to participate in the community’s cultural identity, we, like people in all communities, must develop strategies to address the censorship of ideas, the stifling of diversity, and endemic racism.
Deborah Small, Elizabeth Sisco, Louis Hock, and David Avalos
Exposure, The Journal of the Society of Photographic Education
Summer 1990, Volume 27, Number 3