Public Comment

Popular Speech Needs No Protection

By Douglas Minkler
Thursday December 04, 2008 - 10:01:00 AM

The Arts Commission’s response to the artist’s complaint of censorship thus far has resulted in a set of written restrictions on artists called “Guidelines for the Addison Street Windows.” These guidelines circumvent the artists’ First Amendment rights to free speech and can be summed up by the following excerpt from the new Addison Windows document: “Art must exhibit a high degree of consideration for citizens’ sensitivities to violence, sexual expression and negative portrayals of diverse populations.”  

There are at least two problems for artists regarding these guidelines. The request that art exhibit a high degree of consideration for citizens sensitivities appears reasonable and respectful, but reasonable and respectful should not be a requirements for artistic expression nor should artists be required to engage only in popular speech so as not to offend. Second, the guidelines are extremely vague. One person’s example of insensitivity may another person’s example of great art. What does it mean to show a high degree of consideration for citizens’ sensitivities to violence? We live in one of the most violent countries on the planet complete with torture facilities, lethal injection tables, and we are involved in multiple wars of aggression. Why are some people’s sensitivity to the depiction of such violence to be considered more important than the artist’s need to express and the community’s need to be informed about such issues?  

What specifically does the guideline about sexual expression mean? Does it mean that the unclothed human body that has been depicted by artists for thousands of years is off limits because it does not show sensitivity to some members of community? Whose sensitivity is the city referring to? How does an artist show the high degree of respect requested by the guidelines in the midst of Christians, Muslims, Jews and Mormons? Does this mean that the discussion of gender and sexual politics is unwelcome in Berkeley?  

As for the city’s final guideline—what do they mean by “sensitivity to negative portrayals of diverse populations.” In 1988 I did a poster proposing stopping U.S. aid to Israel. It was never attacked for its message of stopping the $11 million a day that goes to support Israel or for the artistic qualities of the poster. It was attacked and removed from public view throughout the city of Berkeley because some individuals were able to persuade business owners where the poster was exhibited that it showed “insensitivity to Jews.” An important debate on foreign policy was silenced behind the veil of what was at that time described as anti-Semitism. Today the same poster could be excluded from the Windows Gallery because its detractors or the curator could say “it does not show sensitivity to some of the diverse populations.”  

To the credit of the Berkeley Art Commission they have created an appeals procedure for artists who are unjustly treated by the curator. I would like to see the Commission go further and redress the past censorship. As one of the censored artists my questions to the city and the Arts Commission are: 1) Is the “Art of Democracy” exhibit going to be re-invited to exhibit? 2) Is the injustice done to past artists who were wrongly censored going to be addressed by re-inviting them to exhibit their work? 3) Is Art Hazelwood, the organizer of the “Art of Democracy” show, going to be thanked for his efforts to raise the issue of censorship to the city and commission?  

Finally my hope is that our art commissioners will include in the curator’s job description that the curator actively solicit art dealing with the urgent issues of our time. I suggest the arts commission create an actual list of issues such as war, criminal injustice, imperialism, immigration, sexual politics, capital punishment, Middle East foreign policy, etc. This will hopefully bring provocative and enlightening debate to Berkeley and continue the city’s history of honoring free speech and supporting the arts.  


Doug Minkler is a Berkeley artist.