Loyalty Oaths for American Artists?

Will American artists be required to take loyalty oaths in order exhibit their artworks? A major gallery to be built in New York City apparently has no objections to such a scenario, and is in fact opening the door to the creation of an “official” American art. The distressing story has to do with the rebuilding project taking place on the site of the destroyed World Trade Center. I always thought a fitting memorial to the thousands slain at the Twin Towers would be the establishment of a beautiful park - a green commons for quiet contemplation and the viewing of a simple cenotaph baring the names of all those who perished on that fateful day. To construct anything on that hollowed ground seems an abomination to me, somewhat akin to building commercial office space on top of Arlington National Cemetery. But what do I know… I’m just an artist.

Part of the memorial rebuilding effort now underway includes the construction of a cultural center to house arts institutions like the International Freedom Center, the Drawing Center, the Signature Theater Company and the Joyce International Dance Theater. However, a coalition of forces behind the reconstruction project have bullied the arts organizations into declaring that their exhibits would never present “anti-American” artworks. To their great credit, the Drawing Center announced on August 11th, 2005, that they would not move into the newly designed cultural center, preferring not to be dictated to as to what constitutes “anti-American” art. The dance and theater companies have not made a statement as of this writing, but the International Freedom Center has. In a toadying declaration equaling those made by collaborators with the Joe McCarthy witch hunt trials of the 1950’s, the International Freedom Center issued a groveling statement on July 6th, 2005, “We will not ‘blame America’ or attack champions of freedom. Any suggestion that we will feature anti-American programming is wrong.”

Hypothetically, if the International Freedom Center were to hold an exhibition in the future concerning the turbulent 1960’s and America’s role in Vietnam, would such an exhibit exclude artworks critical of that war? And if the center were to mount an exhibit on the struggle for liberty in South Africa, would artists be forbidden to remind viewers that the current US Vice President, Dick Cheney, regarded Nelson Mandela as a terrorist who should not have been released from prison? If dear reader, you think it unlikely the International Freedom Center would mount such controversial exhibits in the first place (which in itself verifies the center’s name as a misnomer), then ponder how their stance regarding patriotism might effect less controversial shows. Consider American Gothic, the iconic painting by Grant Wood. When the artist created his masterwork in 1930 it was not well received. His pinch-faced portrait of a grim and very sour looking farm couple was seen as an attack upon America’s ultra-conservative, bible-thumping heartland. When Wood submitted his painting to the annual exhibition of the Art Institute of Chicago, it was initially rejected, and even to this day critics, curators, and art lovers argue over whether Wood’s painting was meant as tribute or disparagement. If such an artwork were produced in today’s dissent intolerant environment it might just be considered “anti-American”. Erring on the side of caution, would the International Freedom Center bar such an artwork from its galleries? The whole thing smacks of the infamous entartete kunst (degenerate art) policy of Nazi Germany, where artworks not extolling heroism, patriotism, and the glories of the military were deemed to be “anti-German” and banned from public view.

While the International Freedom Center has vowed its exhibits will be guided by patriotism and “good taste”, their pledges have appeased no one. The organization has until Sept. 23rd, 2005, to pronounce unequivocally exactly what it will - and will not, exhibit. Those responsible for applying pressure on the arts institutions are none other than the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC - which is in charge of the rebuilding efforts), Governor George Pataki, and a number of survivors and victims of the 9/11 terror attack. In my view, the only people who have anything worthwhile to say on the matter are the 9/11 victims and their families, but they are not a monolithic group.

The Drawing Center has presented past exhibits that right-wing families of 9/11 victims have denounced as “America-bashing”. Those same families have also expressed alarm that the International Freedom Center might organize exhibits about U.S. wrongdoing throughout history. It is certain these groups have Pataki’s attention, while groups like the September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows - an antiwar organization composed of survivors and victims of the 9/11 terror attack, do not. The group Peaceful Tomorrows took their name from a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr., “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.” It should also be noted that in his day, many considered Doctor King to be “un-American”, and “controlled by Communists” because of his courageous and uncompromising opposition to the Vietnam war. Perhaps that would be enough to prevent the International Freedom Center from presenting a truthful and accurate exhibit on King’s life, beliefs and actions. We’ll have to wait and see.

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