To the editors:
It is really unfortunate that the only truly appropriate response that the Reader has published thus far to the Art Institute painting scandal is in the comic strip “Phoebe & the Pigeon People” [May 20]. Mike Miner’s recent “Outlaw Art” in Hot Type [May 27] is very much beside the point. He is correct that some artists, albeit a small minority to be sure, have chosen to see themselves as outlaws. But nowhere in the Tribune interview with artist David K. Nelson that Miner cites, nor in any of his other statements, does Nelson express thoughts akin to those of Miner’s “outlaw artists” Rimbaud and Genet (“I have no moral sense.” “I love murderers”).
Indeed, I find it appalling that the bulk of Chicago’s response to this scandal has been to criticize or condemn painter and painting. That the painting might be bad art, or crude, or offensive, or that the painter might be a jerk, is not at all the point. The First Amendment, as well as our local laws against theft, are designed to protect all of us, including the jerks. The outlaws in this case are obviously the nine aldermen and the police who supported them. If our elected city officials turn out to be burglars, it is no defense of them to argue that the person whom they robbed was only an “art student,” rather than an “artist.” That a broad spectrum of the Chicago community, from the police to the highest officials of the Art Institute to the Reader, have failed to emphasize what should be the primary issue–the violation of the Constitution and our laws by the city officials, and the Art Institute’s acquiescence in this–bodes ill for our future freedom.
History shows us that raising the level of force utilized in a conflict is rarely productive. Indeed, some of our greatest heroes, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, are such heroes because they chose to lower the level of force used in a struggle, by responding to repressive state violence with a lived commitment to nonviolence. The aldermen who found the painting offensive could have responded in kind, on the same level of discourse, with protests, speeches, dialogue, new images. Instead they chose to respond to a work of art that was obviously not meant to be taken literally with the police power of the state.
Thus the aldermen missed a real chance to help educate the students and faculty of the School of the Art Institute to the views and values of the black community. They also violated their oath of office, in which they are sworn to support the United States Constitution. The Art Institute of Chicago similarly failed in that most basic obligation of citizenship, the upholding of our laws. The Art Institute also missed a fine chance to advance what should be its primary mission, the furtherance of art education in the community. In its cowering apology “To the Chicago Community,” the Art Institute apologizes for the painting, ignores the artist’s absolute right to make it and publicly exhibit it, and fails to point out that works of art are not literally statements of fact, that there is a difference between statement and satire, and that political caricatures have played an important part in the history of our republic. The result is that we all suffer. Our Constitution and our laws guarantee that a loss of freedom requires two players–those who would steal it, and those who surrender it without seeking legal redress: in this case the aldermen and the Art Institute. The result is that artists in this city will feel less free in what they make and exhibit for the foreseeable future.
Individual liberty within a republic is a curious and fragile thing. Governments do not have a particularly good record of expanding citizens’ freedoms. On the contrary, governments, like all institutions, have the tendency to try to seize more power for themselves. All those who live in our country and benefit from its freedoms also have an inherent responsibility to use them and to defend them; unused and undefended freedoms wither and die. The whole moral basis of our Constitution is not so much enumeration of specific freedoms and limitations on the powers of the state as it is the notion that our basic liberties are “unalienable”: we have the right to them simply because we are human. Our nation fought three bitter wars in the long process of its formation. The last and bloodiest of these, the Civil War, resulted in constitutional amendments ending slavery and extending guarantees of equality and liberty to all. As a result of one of those amendments the Supreme Court eventually applied the First Amendment’s prohibition against federal interference with freedom of speech to state and local governments as well. In refusing to defend the freedoms that David K. Nelson was born with from the attack of the nine aldermen, the Chicago Police Department, the Chicago City Council, the mayor, the president of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the board of trustees of the Art Institute, and the president of the board of trustees of the Art Institute have each violated the spirit of our Constitution, defamed the memory of all those who died to defend it, and heaped dishonor on our city and themselves.
Michael Miner replies:
Regarding Mr. Camper’s criticisms of Hot Type, he didn’t get a certain point. The idea that artists should not respect conventional restraints, that they should dare be wicked, suffuses Western culture. It just so happens that American laws are drawn so generously that it is a considerable challenge for any artist to literally put himself beyond them; only a “small minority” manages it, and Mr. Nelson is certainly not among them. But I have no doubt that he realized he was painting an affront, and that in so doing knew he was up to nothing exceptional.
So, now that I’ve made my point clear, I can see it doesn’t amount to much. For an admirably straightforward discussion of the Art Institute debacle, I strongly recommend the article by Jim Tuohy in the current Chicago Lawyer.