Dishonesty, Not Censorship is The MoCA Issue

by Paddy Johnson on December 17, 2010 · 28 comments Newswire

Blu's mural at MoCA being covered over

What’s the latest on the tiny story turned giant news bomb: Jeffrey Deitch white washes graffiti artist Blu’s mural, The Internet (and now Blu) cries censorship? Earlier this week Deitch claimed he hadn’t seen sketches and the images of soldiers in coffins with dollar bill flags on them were likely to be offense to the war memorial. Today Blu claims Deitch didn’t want them.

I know this won’t be a popular opinion, but all this talk about Jeffrey Deitch’s decision to white wash grafetti artist Blu’s mural at MoCA is a big who cares for me. Yes, Deitch shouldn’t have pulled the wall after it had all but been completed.  Blu, though, will still be in the show catalogue, so it’s not like no one will see the piece. If this is the outrageous censorship I keep reading about, it’s pretty ineffective. Plus, let’s keep in mind that the graffiti was never meant to permanent anyway.

The real issue here is that if Blu’s words are true, we have a director at the head of major institution lying in a public form. That’s a serious problem and worth some discussion.

Footnote: What’s not worth much discussion here is the work. There’s been a fair amount of back and forth about its quality on both my Facebook page and at the AFC offices, and for what it’s worth I’m in the “It’s not very good” camp. A good summation by AFC’s Will Brand.

It’s a bunch of caskets, each draped with a dollar in the fashion of a soldier killed in battle. There’s also a little cross nestled in between each casket and its dollar. The message is painfully obvious: soldiers haven’t died for their country but for the almighty dollar, religion is in bed with money and death, and America’s current wars – which brought such images of coffins back to the spotlight – are bad.

I suppose one could argue that when art gets lost in useful debate, it’s probably better that it’s bad. In this case, however, I find the work so poor that I have to push myself to engage in the larger issues.

  • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

    You need a dictionary, Paddy. Look up the word censorship.

  • Anonymous

    Hrag, please. It is inappropriate to tell me or anyone else in this form they need to look up words in the dictionary. This is not the way to start a productive discussion. If you don’t agree with what I’ve written, write a response to a specific passage so I can respond to it. Right now, I’ve got nothing.

  • http://10gallon.com/nf Nick Fortunato

    If MoCA commissioned the piece, can’t they do what they want with it? Did Blu not get paid for the work? Or are people crying censorship because public funds were used in part to fund this? (an argument I haven’t yet heard). If I pay you to make me a piece of art and I destroy it (for any reason) that’s not censorship. It’s shitty but it’s not censorship. Did people say Serra’s Tilted Arc was censorship too?

    • Will Brand

      Spot-on, I’ve been trying to think of an example to express this with for a while now, and Tilted Arc is exactly it. People did call what happened to Tilted Arc ‘censorship’, so it’s extra fitting.

      Blu hasn’t been paid yet, but it was a paid commission and I can’t think MoCA would go so far as to not pay him – I’m sure they realize that would be a PR disaster.

    • http://twitter.com/mfortki Marina Galperina

      No, Blu did not get paid for the work as far as we know.

      • Anonymous

        That seems pretty unlikely. I mean, at the very least he would have had his materials covered and his transportation.

  • Wasteoftype.

    Some works do not deserve spotlight. No matter how ostentatious.
    Sadly the only observation in regard to Deitch and Blu is the fact that art in general has fallen to such a level of stupidity. Thought process , intellectual ambiguity, technical talent, are factors far forgotten by such high level culture fads and business men with a lack of taste.

  • http://thornofplenty.wordpress.com/ ThornOfPlenty

    It’s unclear to me if the context was important to the artist (where it’s facing etc.), it seems like it was, but nobody has said so specifically. I’m going to go with it being important.
    If it was, then I can’t buy that the piece was not censored because it still appears in the catalogue.
    As has been noted, I believe by Paddy on Paddy’s facebook page, it is site specific. Which makes inclusion in a catalog very different than the piece itself.
    I agree that the museum was put in a tough spot.
    I agree that perhaps there were strong sensitivities to think out.
    But that doesn’t change that the work was censored.
    I don’t think that censorship of art is ever justifiable, and know that many disagree.
    But that doesn’t change what happened, just gives it reason.

  • http://twitter.com/cmonstah Carolina A. Miranda

    I agree that the piece is seriously ham-handed — but it strikes me as weird that the director of a major museum wouldn’t know what he was commissioning an artist to do. If Deitch found the material objectionable because of its content, then the buffing does technically fill the dictionary definition of censorship (the removal of objectionable matter by an official). But if he found the work subpar, then it is curatorial. If Deitch didn’t know what he was commissioning then a good analogy would be the MassMoca/Buechel dispute, in which a handshake deal between artist and institution falls apart due to poor communication — and ultimately gets played out in the press.

    • Will Brand

      I almost wonder whether it was a quality-based curatorial decision that Deitch spun as a political issue to save himself and/or Blu the loss of face involved. Crazy?

      • http://twitter.com/mfortki Marina Galperina

        It doesn’t hold up to Blu’s other pieces in quality because it was not finished. He only started on the dollars bills when Deitch decided to whitewash. You can read Blu’s full version of the events here: http://animalnewyork.com/2010/12/blu-on-moca-buff-the-whole-story/

        • Anonymous

          Right, but he said the piece was “understandable” at the time the decision to remove it was made. The problem isn’t the craft it’s the concept.

  • Rob Myers

    The work is bad (and not in New York) but the actions taken and the reasons given for doing it are clear-cut censorship.

  • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

    What you’re doing now is like someone criticizing the Wojnarowicz censorship by attacking the quality of the video itself. Which is bizarre and highly subjective.

    • Anonymous

      I feel like the subjective card gets pulled out most frequently when the art is especially bad. Defending the undefendable with an undefinable concept is the ultimate get out of jail free card. The concepts in this work represent remedial undergrad work — there’s no getting around that, even if you like the artist’s technique and previous art.

      In any event, I think Carolina’s remarks make a good deal of sense on the subject.

      If Deitch found the material objectionable because of its content, then the buffing does technically fill the dictionary definition of censorship (the removal of objectionable matter by an official). But if he found the work subpar, then it is curatorial.

      The rub here of course, is that it’s both, which is why it’s often difficult to build a clear cut case for censorship or curatorial direction.

      • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

        Considering none of us have seen the work in person, and we now realize that the artist may not have even finished the mural himself, but left his assistant to finish it when he realized it wouldn’t last, I think we should reserve judgment on the mural as a finished work of art.

        And subjectivity means that two or three or four critics can disagree on a work and its quality and none are necessarily right or wrong.

        I wish we could have gotten the full story about the mural sooner, as at this point everything feels like PR. So I don’t think we are ever going to get the real facts. Deitch now says he has no problem with the subject matter, but we don’t know if that’s simply what he is saying because he has calculated the risk of saying otherwise.

        • Anonymous

          When Damien Hirst makes a cow in formaldehyde I don’t have to wait for the gold leaf to be fully applied to its horns and hoofs to know its bad, and if his assistant applies it, it doesn’t make it any less his own. Certainly, I don’t have to go see it in person to confirm what has already been made plain. The same can be said of Blu.

          As for Deitch, whether or not he has a problem the subject matter, we know for certain he had a problem with the piece because it no longer exists. Given the crap Deitch has exhibited at his gallery I have a hard time believing it was quality, though in this case, it’s pretty hard to separate the two.

          • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

            Have you even seen a Blu mural in person, Paddy? Scale plays a major role in the work. I’m bewildered by your confidence in passing such a negative judgment on a work you’ve not seen.

          • Anonymous

            So your argument is that the message — simplistic as it is — will hit me over the head less if I experience its monumentality in person?

          • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

            My point is that not having seen it in person perhaps you should take that into account in your judgment.

          • Anonymous

            Hrag, you have a two part series on your blog dedicated to interpreting the mural and contextualizing it historically when you yourself have not seen the work. By your own arguments the more than 3000 words you will have dedicated to discussing the artist’s work will be suspect because you didn’t go out there yourself.

          • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

            You’re right because I feel like many (if not most) art people have no context to understand Blu’s work and I wanted to provide information to people as to who he is, etc. If the artist being discussed was Koons, Hirst or even someone like Cory Arcangel, I wouldn’t feel the need to provide that info.

            In the reporting on the issue, I’ve tried to refrain from a thorough critique of the work, but more a contextualizing of the work. I had issues with the quality, since it seems out of character for him, and some of his past work I do dislike, but I think the issue is MOCA’s decision process and what exactly happened. Also, my posts were a response to some people asking me why we weren’t talking about the art.

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  • Tylerborenstein

    perhaps the white wash is just another piece of art

  • Lukehowlin

    it’s big, blatant and trendy… deitch’s usually favourite criteria for work he shows :/

  • Guy Forget

    art seems to have great difficulty saying something about the world that’s relevant outside of itself. that is, there’s only so much leeway if it wants the cognoscenti to appreciate it. if it is to be able to communicate something to a general audience is it might appear “bad”–more often than not it can’t be ambiguous in the way refined tastes prefer. but, in itself, what’s so bad about a piece who’s meaning is made in the viewer, even if its symbols are transparent (or “heavy-handed”)? also i’m not so sure tilted arc is a good example since it didn’t have overt political meaning.

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  • http://brendanscottcarroll.com Brendan

    I do not see Deitch’s decision to paint over the mural as one of censorship. For me, the whitewashing of Blu’s mural at LA MoCA is an example of poor organization, leadership, and planning on the part of the museum. Deitch has been in the game for long enough to know what type of work Blu makes. His recent anti-war / anti-capitalist murals have all the subtly of sledgehammer. What was Deitch expecting? Did he ask for preliminary sketches? Did he outline what the museum expected of the artist and the mural?

    As a former museum employee, I would argue the museum is responsible for defining what the institution expects from the program partner or guest artist.

    If my family invites Uncle Frankie (robbed-a-bank-at-sixteen-years-old-went-on-the-lamb-in-the-merchant-marines) to the house for Christmas, and my mother’s engagement ring goes missing, we should have locked up the jewelry before he came over. If I invite cousin Liam (can’t get behind the wheel of a car unless he’s drank three liters of red wine) over for Christmas, and he drowns all the bottles in the liquor cabinet, it’s partly our fault for not removing the bottles or placing a lock on the cabinet.

    It has been my experience that the ultimate responsibility falls on the institution to define the terms of the agreement between institution and artist. If the museum wants the artist to address X, Y, and Z, then the museum must spell it out beforehand. When a museum does not outline in a letter of agreement or contract what the institution expects from the artist, program participant, or guest speaker, the museum gets itself into trouble.

    I also think Blu is partly responsible for the mess he found himself in. Did he submit preliminary sketches? Before he committed his time and energy, did he discuss his vision of the mural, and did he define what he was willing to do and what he wasn’t willing to do? Did he discuss financial compensation? Unless the artist contractual cements his terms in writing, he surrenders his power and control.

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