Coffey protesting censorship.
I have been a professional artist since 1975, graduating from Michigan State University with High Honor [suma cum laude] and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.
Learning my trade in commercial graphic arts in New York City, I worked as the art director and resident artist for my own silk screen company.
My graphic and fine art has been shown in over ten states including both coasts. My illustrations and writing have appeared in regional, national and international magazines and newspapers. I have been juried into local, regional and national shows.
Extremely popular with the general public, my art shows often set attendance records. Several times my shows have been held over due to popular request.
It is only in my
home state of Nebraska that I have encountered that strange custom so alien
to democracy that some exercise in violation of the United States Constitution
It has been my experience that censorship happens behind the artist's back and those who commit such acts, do so within a conspiracy of silence leaving it up to the artist to discover that they have been censored. It is not something one can necessarily avoid. There is no way an artist can second guess what may or may not offend someone. Not all censored art is sexual in nature. Assurances that it will not be a problem from the gallery director may not protect the artist from the wrath of the gallery director's bosses.
Censorship is nothing more than art rape: an act of violence against an artist's creativity for the purpose of intimidation. It is a power play that is not debatable. Once the decision has been made, usually without the artist's input, the artist is defenseless against it unless they go public.
Like any other hate crime, it is bad economics. So far the six art rapes I have experienced has cost my studio over $20,000 which would have been spent in an economically depressed region of the United States. Yes, it hurt me economically, but it also hurt the community in which I live.
Censorship is one of many barriers which a visual artist deals with in order to become a "professional artist" in this country. Bigotry is another problem for an artist if they happen to be classified as a "minority." For example, women [52% minority] artists earn 33 cents for every $1 a male artist earns. Classism is still another. I have been condemned in court for "living like an artist" as if an artist is supposed to live any other way.
It is the nature of art to provoke a reaction. No one says it has to be positive. Nobody likes all art even if they can acknowledge its value as an art piece. But to try to limit the arts by attacking one of the few economic supports an artist has, opens a door we may wish we had left closed. If we are to cut public funding for art that might be controversial, then we can surely make provisions for people not paying taxes for welfare programs they find objectionable or military budgets they find over-bloated, gross and disgusting, and the list can go on indefinitely.
Some people are easily offended. They regard any point of view that is different from theirs as offensive. Religion is a case in point. While it hurts to have one's sincerest beliefs held up in what is perceived as an unflattering way, perhaps those who feel such injuries ought to look at the track record of their belief system without their usual rose-colored glasses. For each organized religion on the face of this earth, there are those who sincerely oppose them, and usually for valid reasons. Is the voice of opposition to be silenced in a democracy?
In the case of "The Holy Virgin Mary" at the Brooklyn Art Museum, the cry of offensive came so fast and flew so furiously you know that most of the objections came from folks who had not seen the piece. Just what was so offensive? The fact that Mary was black or that elephant dung was used on the piece?
First of all, we must understand that the artist is of African descent. There is a long tradition in many cultures of the Virgin Mary being black. For an African artist to see the Virgin Mary as black is not a radical thought. Historically, it is far more valid a depiction than having her blonde with blue eyes. Where was the objection to the Virgin Mary being presented as a northern European instead of a Mediterranean Jew? That fantasy was labeled as a fact for centuries.
As for the elephant dung, elephant dung like any dung from a herbivore is not smelly and disgusting. It is full of grass residue and probably can be molded easily as an organic clay, drying hard like adobe. Elephant dung is high in nutrients and works well as a fertilizer. Therefore it doesn't take much of a leap to understand that it is a symbol of fertility. Since the Virgin Mary cult is based upon the old European fertility godessses, it makes perfect sense to combine the two artistically.
The offense that occurred was not done by the artist but rather by myopic people who are not open to understanding cross cultural messages. This painting did not "offend" a religious belief, but rather brought out the latent racist feelings in some people who hid behind an unconventional medium in order to attack art they didn't want to understand.
I think that the greater offense was the "black" madonna was proven when the art work was physically attacked by a critic with a bucket of WHITE paint. As to the red paint that was splashed on the entrance of the Museum, it is difficult to say. Was it supposed to be Christ's blood or menstral blood or simply a threat of physical violence? Sometimes images hastily constructed by non-professional artists leave very mixed messages.
Unfortunately, when high profile celebrities such as Jesse Helms, Tipper Gore and Rudi Guiliani attack the arts for their own personal political gain, the effect is to announce open season upon all artists. Those who would ordinarily simply ignore a disliked art piece suddenly feel free to attack unliked works both physically and verbally by committing wide spread art rape.
Mapplethorpe, Serrano and Ofili will not be hurt by the attacks, their place in art history is assured. It is the thousands of lesser known artists that will suffer. Censorship is like a plague. It contaminates artists as much as the general public. Not only does it try to label you as a bad person, but it also encourages your fellow professionals to turn against you as well. It can undermine your confidence in your own work.
Art is not what the state or any other authority says it should be. Authoritarian definitions are almost always wrong, witness the French art authorities against the Impressionists. State approved art is almost always bad, witness Communist Russia and Nazi Germany. When it comes right down to it, there is only one way to truly determine what is "art."
Art is what the artist says it is.
-- Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968
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Icons, Symbols and Art
Original piece ©1990 Black Prairie Dog Woman Studios
Excerpt from "Jesse Can You Read My Lips"