PUBLIC EXPOSURE: A flare-up at the Firehouse Gallery begs the question: When does censorship make sense? | Arts News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice
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PUBLIC EXPOSURE: A flare-up at the Firehouse Gallery begs the question: When does censorship make sense? 

Nothing like an erect penis to get a rise out of people. Especially an — as the daily put it — "impressively tumescent" organ in a public place. Whether in-the-flesh or on the seemingly passive planes of two-dimensional artwork, a single eroticized male nude can cause more consternation than all of art history's naked ladies put together. So can the smell of censorship. That's what the Burlington arts community found out last Friday when a young artist chose to remove her entire show — scheduled to open that evening at the Firehouse Center for the Visual Arts — rather than remove one "offending" drawing at the request of curator Pascal Spengemann.

For those of you who had not heard of the tempest, or do not live in this teapot, the facts are these:

Selene Colburn, 28, Burlington-born and now a library-science student living in Boston, was planning an exhibit of her own and collaborative artworks, entitled "My Museum" — the latter were accepted by Spengemann sight unseen. Colburn had sent photocopied images of her own making to artist friends around the country and asked them to incorporate the images into artworks of their own, then send her the finished pieces for inclusion in her "museum." A clever idea that Spengemann liked and had no reason to worry about. Or so he thought.

There was just one problem. A pastel drawing by Dale Wittig of California depicted the above mentioned male nude with a member at very full attention. In actuality the drawing is as static as a still life and, truth be told, a not-very-interesting work. But that is beside the point. Erections are simply not acceptable at the Firehouse.

Specifically, strong sexual content, and that which promotes hatred or violence, are verboten according to this community's guidelines for public art. When Spengemann saw the drawing, he says, "a red flag went up right away. I knew this was going to cause some problems one way or another."

Unfortunately, he had not told Colburn about these guidelines in advance.

Not being entirely sure of the rules himself — they'd never been so much as dusted off in his three years of curating the city-owned art space — Spengemann looked them up, and then made the painful decision to ask Colburn to remove the work from her show. After some discussion, including a consideration of "compromises," Colburn made the equally painful decision to take down the whole affair.

"I made the decision based on my feelings about art," she said at the Friday noon press conference organized by Burlington City Arts, the caretaker of Firehouse Gallery. "[I believe] the public has the right to see art and make our own decisions."

That said, Colburn also took the mature position that Spengemann and BAC have no choice but to adhere to the policies of their organization. Conversely, Spengemann said he respected Colburn's choice as well. There was no rancor or blaming at the press conference; rather an air of sadness — and resignation to the inevitable limitations of public space.

Not everyone was so tolerant, however. One young woman ranted about civil liberties in the same type of venomous, knee-jerk response that others have delivered to Spengemann personally over the past few days. Certainly basic freedoms should be vigorously defended, but this skirmish was in the wrong battlefield. It could be argued that what Spengemann did in rejecting an artwork was not censorship in the ugliest sense of the word, but rather a decision appropriate to the place — and to its entire constituency, not just the most tolerant among us.

You see, it was we-the-people — or our proxy, according to the standards of democracy and statistical samples — who made the rules in the first place. Not the City Council. Not Burlington City Arts. Not Pascal Spengemann. This important distinction is not commonly known in the community nearly a decade since the rules were determined.

In 1989, following an incident in which the council rejected some nude female sculptures made for the City Hall fountain, the council asked BCA to establish community guidelines for public art — a move in keeping with a Supreme Court ruling on the matter — rather than have decisions based on whimsy. A scientific survey turned up results that were far more liberal, in fact, than what has come to pass elsewhere, and that many would agree are reasonable for a public space through which all kinds and ages of people routinely pass.

"I don't want this to be just 'let's protect the children,'" BCA Director Doreen Kraft clarifies, referring to the numerous art camps for kids in the Firehouse. "There are all sorts of reasons why people may not want to view these images — including past abuse in their lives. In a public space they should feel protected in that they don't have to prepare themselves to deal with something uncomfortable."

There is also the issue that the community's taxpayers should have some say — democratically, of course — about the kind of art they're willing to view in publicly supported spaces. Congressional battles over the National Endowment for the Arts in the last decade remind us that the draconian alternative is no public funding for the arts at all.

In a private gallery, Kraft notes, signs can be put up, or artwork with adult content can be segregated. "Then you're saying the adult has that ability to choose. Here, we couldn't have chosen that path."

It was fortunate, then, that Rhombus Gallery Director Marc Awodey immediately offered Colburn the option of moving her exhibit to his second-floor College Street facility — a grassroots arts space which hosts not only visual art but theater, music, poetry readings and a film series. Awodey, who also writes art criticism for this paper, is of the fairly rare opinion that art should not be publicly funded, precisely because of the restrictions that come with it. After an initially negative reaction to the censorship, however, he concluded that both Spengemann and Colburn did the right thing given the circumstances.

Colburn did in fact move a portion of her show to the much smaller Rhombus Gallery — the collaborative portion and a handful of her own works — and renamed it "Disaster Planning." That exhibit will remain through August 8, and affords viewers the opportunity to see what all the fuss was about. While doing so they should not overlook the fruits of Colburn's original concept, which ironically is about people with different visions working toward a collaborative goal.

Meanwhile, Firehouse was left in the lurch with an opening 24 hours away. In a move that Awodey calls "brilliant," Pascal Spengemann put the word out for a sort of emergency invitational, in which he would accept the first 50 artworks brought to the gallery — providing they fit the city's guidelines. By 2:30 Friday afternoon he had his show.

Like many a brouhaha, this one turned out to have several silver linings. The Firehouse Invitational itself is one of them. Not surprisingly, the show is wildly eclectic, and its many pleasures include discovering some quite good works by heretofore unknown artists. Several contributions are filled with witty references to the phallic theme of the day, including the painting-collage work — "Moby Dick" — Awodey himself created overnight for the occasion, and a watercolor by Discover Jazz impresario Jimmy Swift, entitled "Erektos Excisos," in which a Grecian man holds a carving in his lap in such a way that it appears to be a giant priapus. With the tone thus set, even such otherwise innocuous works as John Anderson's cardboard architectural models, "Three Fish," and Sheila McGowan's lovely etching of a lighthouse begin to appear slyly subversive.

A huge silver lining, too, was Friday night's impassioned dialogue about censorship, art, and the roles of the public, government and artists in the equation, that issued from every corner at Firehouse, Rhombus and a coincidental opening at Working Design Gallery. That newly aroused fervor is likely to be continued, as BCA is already talking about hosting some public forums to discuss the issues. "That's what art is all about," says Kraft. "The most crucial piece we can do is get people engaged and caring."

Those discussions will surely call into question bigger-picture issues, such as society's profound conflicts — and hypocrisy — about all things sexual. An exhibit of Picasso prints a couple years back at the Fleming Museum, for instance, failed to arouse public outcry despite the inclusion of decidedly erotic images of women.

Throughout this entire incident, both Selene Colburn and Pascal Spengemann have provided admirable role models. In choosing to take down her show, Colburn stuck to her principles, but she did so calmly and without trying to impose her values on everyone else. Spengemann made the only choice he could given his place of employment, and despite his personal views about Colburn's show and issues of censorship. "My first responsibility is to the public," he says, "and my second is to the artists."

The irony is that Spengemann has been gently pushing the envelope, at least aesthetically, at Firehouse since he began the job as curator. He has also been an excellent ambassador representing art and artists to the public.

For that reason, the only real losers in this whole episode are those who have vilified Spengemann and Burlington City Arts for, basically, carrying out the will of the citizenry. As former BCA director Michael Metz suggested at last Fridays press conference, Burlington residents who are unhappy with the parameters of public art should take their comments to the City Council and suggest that those parameters be reexamined. But if another survey of public opinion were to make those rules more, not less, stringent, what then?

Democracy in art, as elsewhere, is inherently a risky business.


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Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston

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Pamela Polston is the cofounder, coeditor and associate publisher of Seven Days.

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