I detect a pattern. It is not a good one.
It began with last year’s soft supression of Nicolas Lampert’s public art project done for the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Then and Again. What could have been a combined gallery exhibition and outdoor street sign installation comprising twenty-six signs scattered around the city in time and for various reasons was downscaled to only six signs and no gallery exhibition.
There are always issues of personality and chemistry involved in projects that depend on the collaboration between artist and curator, between an art worker and institutional host. We know this. But the series of decisions that reduced what would have been a provocative, celebratory, and necessary lesson in Madison’s radical tradition to a very quiet project that almost lived up to the barely-there nature of the typical BLINK project deserves every bit of derision.
According to Nicolas, the original proposal had the museum presenting an exhibition of posters and ephemera about Madison's past history of social justice movements. He along with museum curators would have brought them to museum-sanctioned light from out of the dark archives, institutional and personal, holding evidence of decades of local activism and organizing.
Sounds great to me. Radical elements put Madison on the map internationally in the days of opposition to the war in Vietnam, even before the Sterling Hall bombing. The public sector workers’ union that later became AFSCME was born in Madison. It was in Madison that Aldo Leopold held the nation’s very first professorship in wildlife management, thereby helping to set the climate for the environmental movement of later years—including the birth of Earth Day as a teach-in championed by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. So much of Madison’s contribution to the world has been in the areas of policy, protest, activism, and organizing.
But this part of the show didn’t happen. Nicolas backed out of the gallery exhibition when it became clear that the museum was not comfortable with a show that examined and celebrated only the radical left. MMoCA curators wished to add “balance” by including ephemera from Madison's past generally, including rock posters and other kinds of less politicized material.
We could chalk up the failure to Nicolas’s stubborness or curator Jane Simon’s differing vision. But as a museum goer wishing for some relevant shows, what is hard to stomach is the possibility that the museum brass second-guessed Nicolas in his area of expertise. He knows more about political graphics and art in social movements than all but a handful of curators and researchers; he’s finalizing a book-length study on the subject of activist art right now. If the museum somehow got spooked by his intentions, well, they should have known better than to invite him in the first place. Perhaps they should have invited a Madison-based artist with a wider grasp of the local history and not a Milwaukee/Chicago-based artist known for his art activism.
The way the outdoor installation got reduced was worse. Twenty-six proposed signs became only six. The other twenty signs, many of them planned for sites along State Street, with wording ranging from slogans to surreal text fragments, and designs going from the sober institutional to the playfully countercultural (including a Killdozer quotation—a local tribute if ever there was one), were rejected in whole by the Madison Arts Commission, whose permission is required for public projects of this kind. The stated reason? Interfering with rights of way. This, even though the city’s police department gave the project the green light. The museum’s advocacy, such as it was, could not overcome an Arts Commission clogged by a minority of reactionary voices—a person or persons no doubt ignorant not only of Nicolas’s thought process and intentions, but of contemporary art in general.
And here is where the pattern starts. The seat of the problem is not in the museum; the indications are that the museum bends to conservative pressures exerted by the public it serves, pressures that go unchallenged because they are dressed up in bureaucratic machinations. I fault primarily the nameless commissioner(s) who killed the project, and their fellow commissioners who did not fight for it. However, the museum missed the boat by failing to bring the debate to the public. A teachable moment that surely would have raised the level of discussion in town to something beyond the boosterism that dominates—say in the form of a museum-organized forum—was lost.
That there exists a culture of suppression in Madison, liberal in its process, becomes more plausible when moving onto the story of the Edenfred closing.
The Edenfred Arts Residency is one of the only arts institutions in Madison that draws from a national pool of careers and brings noted practitioners into contact with people in Madison regularly. For a town full of pretend significance in the arts, Edenfred is the real thing. But then the program became threatened because of tax-exemption issues. When the Terry Family Foundation—the program’s sponsoring organization—argued for tax-exempt status, the city slapped zoning violations on top of their rejection. The foundation decided to close shop instead of fighting an expensive battle, leaving Madison with a huge hole in its cultural scene. After this month, the program will fold. There is no independent institution in the area like it left.
My view is that Edenfred is simply not valued by people in Madison. By the serious artists, composers, and writers, yes. But that’s only a handful of people. It is not valued by the general public, and possibly even resented by some of the neighbors, if this report can be believed. That is why I see this as a kind of liberal suppression. The opposition is not out in the open. Everybody professes support for the arts because it sounds civilized and sophisticated, without knowing what the hell actual support means. When the small arts organization that is trying to do something truly innovative locates itself in their neighborhood—because that is the only setting in which the organization's vision could be fully realized—and suddenly the zoning issues get tested, the liberal tendency is for the neighbors to let the bureaucracy do the dirty work.
Again, there are probably two sides to the story; perhaps Edenfred pulled the plug too quickly, not giving the city a chance to tailor a response. They seemed only to lobby for their cause very quietly if at all. On the other hand, the tax-exemption application was in process for a year or more. A city that is committed to cultivating a distinctive arts ecology would have been more creative and proactive in its response. And where was the Arts Commission on this one? Did they have nothing to say, no way to facilitate a workable agreement of some kind?
Finally, there is the most recent travesty. Only several weeks ago, in fact not all that long before David Wojnarowicz’s “Fire In My Belly” was being censored out of the Smithsonian’s Hide/Seek show, a photograph by Oren titled “Stripped” on display in an Overture Center gallery was removed. This, too, was an act of censorship, plain and simple. There is no other word for it.
Check out the image, to the right. This is what people were not allowed to view.
The show, which closed last Sunday, was titled Living With HIV/AIDS: Perspectives Through the Lens and was about exactly that, living with HIV/AIDS, seen through photographs. The show was timed to run over World AIDS Day. What possibly could be more affirming, inclusive, and socially-aware? Well, how about this. The Overture Center’s stated reason for the censorship? Overture management was concerned that “a little kid could connect sickness with genitals” by looking at the photo, said Overture publicist Robert Chappell.
Yes, let us now take care to shield all children from associating genitals with anything remotely negative—even though there are no genitals visible in this particular photo—by removing the photo. But then leaving up all the other photos, including the ones with nudity, in a show about living with HIV/AIDS. Or why not this: we must protect genitals from being victimized by negative associations!
If you can stand the distracting advertisements, you can watch Mr. Chappell play the role of values arbiter and child psychologist right here, courtesy of CNN.
This latest episode is all the more terrible for the fact that for many months the city had been considering a deal to save the Overture Center, which has been a money pit pretty much from the moment they opened the doors, from going broke. This place, with decent galleries but a beautifully oversized and underused performance hall, will likely, if all the council members who crow about the importance of the arts in Madison have their way (which is pretty much all of them, with only a few exceptions), continue as a taxpayer-subsidized concern of whatever formation (wholly city-owned, or privately managed, or a combination). Given the inevitable subsidies, it will in some sense belong to the public. To us, the People. In whom, apparently, We Do Not Trust.
To sum it up: No room for modest and temporary aesthetic interventions that are actually about something on State Street–let's reserve our renowned pedestrian-friendly lane for the drunken hordes on football Saturdays, for their exclusive animalistic creativity. Edenfred is allowed to die ripe on the vine while the Healthy Genitals Authority have our backs. Our property taxes go up, not to support the expansion of art initiatives in the schools, but rather so that the white elephant known as the Overture Center continues to exist as a venue for the Lion King–I mean, who wants to drive the 70 minutes to Milwaukee for the same show? Am I crazy to believe that the culture of the city is a bit messed up when the police department is more enlightened and permissive than the arts commission? (Kudos to the Madison police for knowing that drunken idiots are a greater threat to safety than a public art sign project.)
You gotta hand it to the conservatives. At least they have a clear agenda, hateful as it is. The liberals are so incredibly muddled in their thinking, tripping over themselves to honor and affirm every possible and half-imaginary constituency no matter how ridiculous or convoluted their consequent actions become, that it is impossible to take seriously their positions, much less their interventions. But rather than deal openly with the agendas betrayed by the contradictions and values gymnastics, the liberals hide behind their blunt force powers of either granting or denying permission.
All those corny COEXIST bumperstickers I see around Madison are a clue. A population that has to continually declare to itself its inclusiveness likely has some problem or dysfunction in that very area, a liberal mirror image of how the hard right homophobes are usually the ones carrying on with the rent-a-boys. The feeling of the bumperstickers may be genuine and the intention exceptionally good, but the local forces of exclusion and separation are equally if not more real, and screaming COEXIST merely indicates that we aren’t doing such a good job of tolerating that which makes us a tiny bit uncomfortable.
So in liberal Madison when push comes to shove, no matter how clumsy the dance, the fist comes down, just the same. In the above three cases, the cudgel of authority is wielded to kill art, as dead as when stomped on by the retrograde neanderthals. The only difference is, the liberals are harder to fight.