Censorship by a minority: Fear and Intolerance in the Art Game
Watch- Butterflies and Bats , mixed media, by Vito Valenti
The artist was Vito Valenti, who had once served as a board member of WP&S and who has often exhibited with the organization. He walked into that gallery to find that several of his sculptures had been covered up by the manager upon instructions from the gallery owner. This was a private commercial gallery in a western suburb of Milwaukee. The gallery has been operating for many years carrying traditional landscapes, florals and good quality conservative art. Vito had shown here for several years and in a previous show had actually sold 12 of 15 sculptures from his display.
The sculptures that were pulled out of the show were not sexual in content, no nudity, no coitus, no human body parts showing...no references to the US flag, the government, no criticism of the President, no religious or racial or prejudicial commentary. There was nothing bombastic, nothing drug related, and nothing that has not been incorporated by other artists during the last fifty years. It appears there was just one indignant customer...and that was enough to have the gallery owner censor the pieces. This year Vito had included mixed media sculptures that incorporated the real remains of some once living animals. There was a naturally mummified cat embedded into a transparent but visually distorting resin. There was a deer skull, a bat and a butterfly. No! Vito did not kill these animals in order to use them in his art. They were found objects.
We need not look far to find the work of major artists incorporating animal remains. There are the older classic icons like Rauschenberg and Keinholz...their art made decades ago which is today highly valued. This organic usage has become acceptable in major museums and galleries around the world. Since the late 1980’s we have seen the highly touted work of Damien Hirst which incorporates whole and huge deceased animals in formaldehydelike solutions.
And how many cultures have used animal remains as part of their visual arts which museums and galleries today accept pro forma without offense? We have bones of saints in churches, skulls of monks displayed in Europe’s holy places, antlers, bones and ivory as handles on our cutlery. We have esteemed aboriginal art from New Guinea, Africa and by Native Americans seen in countless museums and galleries, much employing animal remains. These are acceptable and revered. And...every day there are millions of creatures of all sorts slaughtered for our tables and wearing apparel. Their flesh is consumed, their bones ground up. Their skins and hides become shoes and handbags. They become glue and fertilizer. Here are some statements of philosophy and intent from Vito, which he provided to me by personal email:
“I live on 3, mostly wooded, acres in Muskego, animal remains are a part of the landscape.” “By using the remains of living creatures I am, in my way, pointing out the utter transiency of physical existence and, by inference stressing the point that it is our inner/spiritual lives that really count.”
“I grew up Catholic in Chicago and I vividly remember the nuns enthusiastically showing us grade school students “relics” which were typically bone chips of some other body parts of long dead saints, humans, by the way. Those images and the images of other ritualistic objects stuck in my mind and became a part of my artistic vocabulary.”
“...- using animal remains is not my trademark or the the main thrust of my art, they only appear in about 5% of my work. I only use them when they add to a visual statement.” Of course there are serious questions raised about this incident and other similar incidents. What were Vito’s options when he discovered this censorship of his art expression? What rights did he have? Did the gallery do a right thing, or did it react out of fear, lack of understanding and fortitude? Should the gallerist have supported the artist and freedom of expression within its own walls instead of running in fright? Should there have been signs that stated “Warning! This exhibit includes remains of animals.” Of course a privately owned gallery has the right to refuse or remove art that it finds unsatisfactory for a variety of reasons. There are contracts that artists enter which give galleries the right to show what they want. But there are also gallerists who have deeper understandings of what art can be, what its intentions are, and who will not kowtow to any pressures applied by a small disgruntled minority...or even an unhappy majority. While commercial galleries have to focus on art that has a good potential to sell, there are some of them that also attempt to stretch the common public taste in an effort to educate that public.
Some art is made to decorate walls. Some art is made by artists who don’t really know why they make it. Some art is made with intentions other than sales. As artists we seek those venues that have exhibition records, audiences and philosophies that fit our own predilections. Sometimes we discover too late that what we hoped for and expected is not there.
In the final call, when it comes to a commercial gallery that really depends on sales to keep afloat, the realities require that it carry more conservative fare which is not likely to offend...but which is not likely to stimulate much thought. The artist who creates more progressive work, especially that considered in the avant garde, must be prepared to be disappointed, ready to fight a few battles, and/or be capable of finding ways to compromise. Galleries should be respectful, sensitive and sympathetic to not only its clientele, but to the artists who will upon occasion stretch someone’s sensibilities