Secret Service Visits Art Show

Axis of Evil, the Secret History of Sin, a group show at the Columbia College Chicago Glass Curtain Gallery, was visited by Secret Service agents who photographed artworks and asked the museum director for the names and phone numbers of all participating artists. The Columbia group exhibition is made up of submissions from 47 artists from 11 countries. The exhibit’s theme is an examination of evil, with all portrayals depicted on counterfeit postage stamps.

Many stamps deal with violence and terrorism, one referenced the mass murder in Cambodia and another the genocide in Nazi Germany. One stamp shows Attorney General John Ashcroft’s face fashioned from the naked bodies of prisoners in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. Another stamp is titled I saw it in a movie starring Steven Segal, and presents a series of images of an airplane approaching, crashing into, and destroying the Sears Tower in Chicago.

The focus of the controversy is Al Brandtner’s stamp titled Patriot Act. The authentic looking red, white, and blue stamp features a portrait of George W. Bush with someone holding a semi-auto pistol to his head. The Secret Service requested that the exhibit’s curator, Michael Hernandez de Luna, contact them within 24 hours to discuss the meaning of the artworks on display. A Secret Service spokesman would divulge nothing about the visitation, other than to say that “we are doing some inquiries into the art exhibit, we’re just doing some looking into it.”

I do not support George W. Bush and his policies, but Brandtner’s stamp is entirely uncalled for. A gun pointed at the head of the US President implies a threat, the stamp reads “patriot… act” as if an assassination would be the work of a patriotic American. This is unacceptable. You can see the offensive Bush “Patriot Act” stamp at the Glass Curtain Gallery website.

Here’s what I don’t understand. How can anyone be so feebleminded as to create an image of a US president about to be shot in the head, sign their name to it, and put it on public display in a College art gallery? How can the exhibit curator call it “edgy” art? How can “progressives” stand around wringing their hands over the death of free speech because the Secret Service shows up?

Having been in a number of group shows myself, I can attest to the fact that a submitting artist has no idea as to what other contributing artists have submitted, and usually you only find out once the show is hung and opened to the public. The question is, if the Secret Service is interested in a specific piece like Brandtner’s Bush stamp, then why are they requesting the names and phone numbers of all 47 artists in the show?

This sounds like a “fishing expedition” at best, and at worst, an act of intimidation meant to chill prospects of artists contributing to future shows exhibiting controversial and politically charged works.

Museum director CarolAnn Brown turned nothing over to the Secret Service, referring them instead to the attorneys representing the various artists. Brown maintains that the shows artists, including its curator, are independent artists not affiliated with the college, therefore the college has no personal information on them to give.

Columbia College spokeswoman Micki Leventhal called the Secret Service visit unprecedented for an art show. “We’re an art school. Our position has always been and remains: We support freedom of speech, freedom of artistic expression and academic freedom.” Ms Leventhal went on to say that Columbia College agreed to host the exhibit because of its high artistic standards, and that the institution continues to support the exhibit.

Hernandez, who besides being the exhibit curator is also a contributing artist, said “It frightens me… as an artist and curator. Now we’re being watched. It’s a new world. It’s a Big Brother world. I think it’s frightening for any artist who wants to do edgy art.”

“High artistic standards” and “edgy art” my foot. The exhibit ran until May 11th 2005.

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