BEHIND THE SCENES:
"The Mayor's Office Censored My Painting at Artscape"
Webster's dictionary defines censorship as "official examination to suppress the publication of objectionable works." By this standard, the O'Malley Administration's decision to suppress the painting, in spite of its artistic merits, is a classic case of censorship.
This should alarm anyone who believes in free speech. As a public art event, Artscape should honor the constitutional rights of every Baltimorean to speak freely.
The Artscape 2004 organizers had approved my painting, entitled "Hitler in France," for exhibition, but after one week on display, it was removed at the instigation of Mr. Israel Patoka, the director of the Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods, who found it personally "offensive." Despite the fact that the gallery at City Hall is outside of Patoka's jurisdiction, he bullied the organizers of the show into taking the painting down.
In a recent letter sent to members of the O'Malley administration, I requested a reconsideration of the decision to censor my painting. Clarence Bishop, the Mayor's Chief of Staff, maintained Patoka's decision to disregard my civil rights and the artistic merits of my painting. In a letter sent to me, Bishop stated, "City Hall is the seat of Baltimore's local government and clearly an inappropriate venue to an exhibit of Adolph Hitler."
During my conversation with Patoka, he never indicated that anyone but himself was offended by my image. Even Bishop recognized it was "not [my] intent to portray the former Nazi leader in a positive light." Nevertheless, Mr. Patoka claimed that, as the child of Holocaust survivors, he had the authority to remove the painting. Neither Mr. Patoka-nor, apparently, the O'Malley administration-respects my ability to treat the subject of Hitler with an artist's sensitivity. Mr. Patoka's decision shows a lack of understanding for the philosophical nuance of modern painting. All semantic arguments aside, Artscape is a public event and free speech rights ought to be honored. Since Artscape does not have a policy of rejecting art based on content, any attempt to censor artworks in public spaces is a violation of free speech laws that should not be tolerated.
Unfortunately, censorship has become a reality in the post-PATRIOT Act era. In a world where those with power can construe every stand, every act of expression, as 'for us or against us' [i.e., Americans and their values], speech ceases to be an absolute right and becomes a threat, something to be regarded with suspicion. By now, most of us are intimately familiar with how this kind of shortsighted thinking has played out on the international stage, pushing the United States into an untenable position as a unilateral superpower where those who dare to dissent-even our allies-are indeed against 'us.'
But the problem does not begin and end in the White House: our local politicians are also trampling on the First Amendment. And they are getting away with it, because their constitutional violations and blatant acts of censorship have been overlooked and uncriticized by a cowed press and even by civil libertarians, who can't seem to focus on any injustice unless it comes from the Bush Administration. When US Attorney General John Ashcroft draped a nude statue in the Justice Department, it unleashed a storm of protest and media scrutiny. But his actions were no different from Patoka's with regard to my painting. The people, media, and civil rights activists of Baltimore should be at least as outraged when the O'Malley Administration has an artwork removed as they were when Ashcroft had one draped.
For their part in organizing a challenging show of high quality works, the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts ought to be commended, and I appreciate that they tried to include my painting in the exhibit. The art at City Hall denotes the importance of the arts and entertainment district to the city. I am a resident of the Station North Arts District, and I am happy to be part of Baltimore's burgeoning art scene. Artscape attendees come from far and wide, and I submitted one of my best paintings for inclusion in the City Hall exhibition in the hopes it would reach a broader audience. Censorship of my painting is counter to the spirit and purpose of Artscape as a forum for the artists of Baltimore, no matter how challenging their perspectives.
My art is a philosophical examination of good and evil. I use the contextual imagery of war and politics to stimulate critical thinking and dialogue. My censored painting, "Hitler in France," is obviously not a pro-Fascist, anti-Semitic, or neo-Nazi promotional image. It confronts the viewer so that s/he may reconcile her/his own beliefs with the absurd reality of evil.
It may be natural that Mr. Patoka would have a strong reaction to an image of the dictator who is the universal embodiment of evil and genocide. Indeed, this image brought forth a rage I had to confront, and ultimately get beyond. I painted the portrait as a memorial to the banality of evil, so that evil, shorn of even its negative glory, can never happen again.
In introducing shock and disgust into the political dialogue, I seek a discussion through which we can create a more wary, a more critical, a more just world. Patoka found such a challenging image to be inappropriate for City Hall. But censorship in public spaces takes away art's most important role-to engage the public in cultural dialogue. As defenders of public values we should not shy away from challenging subjects, but allow the citizens of Baltimore to make their own decisions about their significance and worth. It is ultimately ironic that this painting should be subject to censorship-one of the Third Reich's most valued weapons.
Mr. Patoka claimed in a recent article in the City Paper that he speaks for the Baltimore Jewish community. It is preposterous to think that one individual can speak for the whole of Baltimore's diverse Jewish population-especially a censor of art, since the Jewish community had its own art censored by the Third Reich. The local Jewish community should be insulted that Patoka would stifle free expression in their name.
The Mayor's Office's censorship of my work seems of a piece with an administration that "believes" Baltimore can be a city of homogenous, upper-middle-class consumers of an antiseptic, big-business aesthetic. O'Malley is more concerned with the well-being of big-money interests than with the vitality of our city, which is why he offers millions in corporate welfare for billionaires like Robert L. Johnson while overtaxing and increasing fees for the working class-the laborers, the artists, and the shopkeepers-that gives Baltimore its special flavor.
The fact is, artists are an important part of the creation of cultural capital and quality of life. They revitalize neighborhoods and invite the kind of development that makes Baltimore an interesting place to live, not just visit. Their works have a stimulating effect on culture and public debate, and City Hall should be proud to display them. No matter how offended Patoka may be by my painting, no matter how much it upsets Bishop's notion of visual hygiene at City Hall, the O'Malley administration could use a basic civics lesson on the meaning of freedom of speech from Voltaire, who famously said: "I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it".
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This story was published on August 20, 2004.