Art Exhibit Censored in Berkeley

In Berkeley, California, the city known as the birthplace of the 1960s Free Speech Movement, an antiwar poster exhibition organized by the Art of Democracy project has been censored by a City of Berkeley-run arts venue.

The Art of Democracy poster exhibit was scheduled to go on display from Oct. 20 through Nov. 29, 2008, at the Addison Street Windows Gallery - a project of the Civic Arts Program and the Civic Arts Commission of the city of Berkeley. However, the show was never mounted because the gallery curator Carol Brighton, and the Civic Arts Coordinator Mary Ann Merker, deemed four of the posters objectionable, citing city guidelines that allegedly proscribe the depiction of guns in works of public art. According to the San Francisco Gate, “The city of Berkeley has no formal policy on what can be shown in its galleries”. The censored posters by Tony Bergquist, Anita Dillman, Doug Minkler, and Jos Sances - utilized depictions of weapons to convey their messages.

Gallery curator Carol Brighton told Art of Democracy organizer Art Hazelwood, that the four supposedly offending posters would have to be removed from the exhibit before the show could be presented to the public. However, the 40 participating artists in the show - rejecting the arbitrary censorship - decided they would only exhibit as a group. Having effectively shut-down the exhibit, Brighton quickly booked a pottery show as a substitute.

Print by Anita Dillman

[ Vote Issues Not Image - Anita Dillman. Lithograph. 2008. For "depicting guns, violence and weaponry", this print was one of four artworks censored by the City of Berkeley-run Addison Street Windows Gallery. Dillman’s non-partisan and rather benign image portrays 2008 presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama, surrounded by depictions of windmills, an atomic power plant, a fuel efficient car, the caduceus - ancient and international symbol of medicine, a destitute mother and child, and an AK 47 automatic rifle. ]

The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), an artist’s rights watchdog group, wrote a letter to Berkeley City Mayor, Tom Bates, voicing disapproval over the censorship of the Art of Democracy exhibit (read the NCAC letter here - pdf format). Copies of the letter were also sent to all members of the Berkeley City Council, as well as to the curator of the Addison Gallery, Carol Brighton, and the Civic Arts Coordinator, Mary Ann Merker. In part the NCAC letter read:

“While we sympathize with the City’s desire for a world without guns or violence, the decision to put a blanket ban on all art including guns is not only unproductive, it threatens to silence important political speech. The recent incident involving the four Art of Democracy posters, which express strong views on US foreign policy, is a clear example of the type of serious political expression that the ban can suppress. To suppress political speech, which enjoys the highest constitutional protection, a government venue has to have significant interest - in security, public safety or the like.

“It is hard to see how the City can demonstrate such an interest given the nationwide presence of guns and weaponry in war memorials, murals, and film posters, just to enumerate what one can see in the street. In fact, one of Berkeley’s iconic murals, the People’s History of Telegraph Avenue, contains guns. In this context there doesn’t seem to be any legitimate justification for banning the representation of guns from a public gallery. Indeed, according to the organizers, no other venue among the fifty to host the Art of Democracy exhibition around the country has censored the show.

We urge the City of Berkeley to review its guidelines and uphold its proud tradition of free speech. We all want to see fewer guns and less violence in the world, but suppressing a discussion of violence just because it graphically refers to violence, would not accomplish that goal.”

In its article on the squelching of the Art of Democracy exhibit, the Berkeley Daily Planet quoted censored artist Jos Sances; “I think the city wants to control what kind of images are up on the window. I think it should reflect the people of the city and honestly, most people in Berkeley would not be offended by these images. The city is afraid of censorship and wants everything to be nice and sweet. Unfortunately art doesn’t work that way. Art is often dirty and tough.” Another of the exhibit’s censored artists, Doug Minkler, has been circulating the following open letter;

“City council, friends and press,

In February of 2008 Melanie Cervantes and I drafted a number of letters alerting the city that there was a serious problem involving arbitrary unnecessary curatorial censorship of the Addison street windows. Since that time I have learned that there have been others who have not been allowed to show their work in the Berkeley’s Addison Street Windows. The curator, Carol Brighton, and the Berkeley Art Commission’s decision to back her ban on military symbols in this public space was an unconstitutional act. To limit debate on this most central issue of our times - war - through an abolition of war objects is not legal.

The embedded journalist/embedded art commissioner model does not reflect the community of Berkeley nor the bay area. Our three months of meetings and letter writing trying to correct this policy accomplished little. No one to whom we wrote or spoke to at the city wanted to take on this censorship issue.

Today the community of Berkeley has again been denied an opportunity to view important work (the Art of Democracy exhibit) due to this absurd ban on artists who show military armaments in their work. This is like telling poets they can’t use the word ‘death’ in their poems because it might be unsettling to the children that read their poems. All poets that use the word ‘death’ are banned from exhibiting in the Addison Street Windows by order of the city of Berkeley. Context is everything.

I support the current attempt being launched by the Art of Democracy artists to have these precious windows freed from the current censorship policy. The 1st Amendment guarantees our free speech, but this guarantee means nothing if we do not enforce it. Please speak up.”

While the Addison Street Windows Gallery censored the Art of Democracy poster show, they did not succeed in stopping the exhibit - an alternative venue was promptly found. Opening Nov. 8, 2008 and running until November 30, 2008, the Pueblo Nuevo Gallery in Berkeley will be showing the vibrant - and completely uncensored - political posters from the Art of Democracy project. For more information on the City of Berkeley’s flirtation with arts censorship, view the Berkeley Has A Censorship Issue! page on the Art of Democracy website, where you can see the four censored posters, see photos from the Pueblo Nuevo opening, and read the original Press Release from the censored show at the Addison Street Windows Gallery.

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