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Art and Politics

Galleries, Artists, Etc.

By Laura James · January 2nd, 2008 · The Big Picture

Stephen Radich, a New York City art dealer, passed away Dec. 18. His death got me thinking about art and politics, censorship and the potential of visual art.

In 1966, Radich opened a solo show for artist Marc Morrel in his Madison Avenue gallery. Morrel used the American flag as an object of protest against the Vietnam War: In one instance, the artist transformed the flag into a corpse's skin and stuffed it for a more visceral guise.

Whatever we imagine or remember about the 1960s -- and New York City -- the time wasn't progressive enough to let this work slide by. According to Ken Johnson of The New York Times, "the exhibition came to the attention of the New York police, (and) Mr. Radich was summoned and eventually convicted of casting contempt on the American flag. He was ordered to pay a $500 fine or serve 60 days in jail. (Mr. Morrel was not charged.)"

Radich appealed the decision, but the New York courts upheld it. Finally, in 1971, the United States Supreme Court overturned the ruling.

Of course, in Cincinnati, the closest thing we have to such an ordeal is the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center in 1990. We all know the story: Hamilton County Prosecutor Arthur Ney indicted the CAC and its director Dennis Barrie for criminal obscenity charges.

A jury of Hamilton County residents found Barrie not guilty in October.

So much has been made of the trial. How could this happen in the '90s when Radich was cleared in 1971? It must be a symptom of the Midwest and our cultural hollowness. Our city is backwards and anti-art.

Those ideas plague us even today, and they are simply not true. And it's not fair. Unless you're in graduate school or reading the obits, you won't hear of Radich and Morrel. It left no stain on New York's idea of itself.

Let's fast-forward to 1999 and the opening of Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. One work of art caught the eye of then-mayor, now-presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani: Chris Olifi's portrait of the Virgin Mary, complete with a glop of elephant dung.

"You don't have a right to government subsidy for desecrating somebody else's religion," Giuliani said at a press conference in 1999. "And therefore we will do everything that we can to remove funding for the Brooklyn Museum until the director (Arnold L. Lehman) comes to his senses and realizes that if you are a government-subsidized enterprise, then you can�t do things that desecrate the most personal and deeply held views of people in society. I mean, this is an outrageous thing to do."

Giuliani threatened to cut off funding and eventually to terminate the museum's lease with the city and even to seize control of the collection. In the end, after much huffing and puffing from both sides, the courts made the mayor back down. The mayor and the institution settled out of court.

And now, only eight years later, Giuliani is a presidential front-runner? As far as I know, no one has called his censorship push into question.

I wonder why the collective memory is so short in New York. It seems like only the people involved in it or people who follow arts censorship closely know about the Sensation scandal.

It might be in Lehman's obituary, but I doubt it will be in Giuliani's.

CONTACT LAURA JAMES: ljames@citybeat.com



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