Public Comment

Windows Gallery Wrongly Disparaged

By Peter Labriola
Thursday December 04, 2008 - 10:02:00 AM

Considering the reams of bad publicity I’ve read regarding the Addison Street Window Gallery, I’d like to check in with my two cents regarding this wonderful enterprise. Back in 1993, the great Brenda Prager invited me, and fellow artist B.N. Duncan, to host our own gallery showing in the window, “Berkeley Artists on the Fringe”—a collection of oddball art by Berkeley street people. We couldn’t have asked for a more gracious host. In fact, it was the first public acknowledgment that my artwork had ever received from the town of Berkeley (whether this is a good or bad thing I’ll leave to you to decide). And it led to several other fruitful collaborations with the magnificent Berkeley Civic Arts program, including the recording of the “Telegraph Avenue Street Music” CD in 1994, with a big assist from Bonnie Hughes. 

Issues like “free speech” and “censorship” strike deep chords involving high ideals and moral principles, and etc. For that reason, I’m dismayed when I see these terms thrown around in such a sloppy and irresponsible fashion. I haven’t seen the artwork that inspired all the “controversy,” so I’m in no position to chime in on its merits. But I do find the knee-jerk reaction to all this somewhat repulsive. Certainly, a curator of any public exhibit has to apply standards for what is or isn’t presented in a public space. Certainly, pornographic images, or anti-social images, or images that promote criminal behavior would wisely be “censored” from a forum that is accessible to children. Also too, like it or not, the curator has to make aethetic judgments on the artistic merit of the work. For example, I could slop big piles of cow dung onto pedestals and put it in the window. Would that be “art”? Possibly. Would that be “good” or “bad” art? Possibly. Art is in the eye (and the nose) of the beholder. But so what? The point is, whenever you have dozens of artists or performers competing for a limited stage, a gate-keeper (i.e. a curator) has to decide what gets shown and what gets rejected. That’s just the reality of this big, cruel world of ours. The point being; there’s a big and crucial difference between having standards (and there will always be “arbitrary” standards when evaluating something as ethereal as art) and “censorship.” And for this reason, I’m deeply offended by the sloppy way these terms like “free speech” and “censorship” have been bandied around in this case. 

Even a paper such as the Daily Planet, which has a magnificent record for publishing a wide spectrum of viewpoints, many of which are no doubt repugnant to the editor, nonetheless has editorial standards for what it will or won’t publish. Is this “censorship"? I think not. (Unless, of course, Becky refuses to publish this letter, then I’m gong to start crying about how my “free speech” has been denied by these “fascists.”) 

In a related aside, we, the merchants and residents of Telegraph Avenue, have recently been dealing with a bunch of obnoxious evangelical Christians from out of town, who subject us to their ear-crunching amplified noise for five hours every Saturday, on a block that is already a cacophony of noise and sensory overload. Predictably, when we try to limit this public nuisance, we get the same old cries of “free speech” and “censorship.” Ironic, considering this isn’t “free speech”—it’s paid speech (you need to buy a permit for amplified sound)—and there are already plenty of legal limitations in place. But, as with the Windows Gallery controversy, all too often you get the knee-jerk blather about high ideals, which obscure the practical reality of a simple issue involving public space that is shared by everyone. 

All too often (maybe not necessarily in this case, but) mediocre artists throw these terms around, simply to get reams of publicity for mediocre artwork that mostly would have been ignored otherwise. “Why, my work is so powerful, it’s been banned!” And then, of course, the public has to see what all the fuss was about. 

At any rate, I’d like to express my appreciation for the great work done by the Addison Street Window Gallery over all these years. And to anyone who might disparage it, might I say: Hooey. 


Peter Labriola (aka Ace Backwords) is a Berkeley artist and Telegraph Avenue merchant.