The manifold levels of irony have certainly peaked at WTF levels: an artist compelled to cover over the image of Martin Luther King Jr. in a Klan costume with white paint in order to quell reports of complaints. Likely you’ve heard of the rumpus and voiced your protest of “racist” or “censorship” as a Facebook/Twitter comment/tweet. A shortened version of the events (in haiku form):
Allen’s mural of/Dr. King as a Klansman/caused a huge ruckus/with a store owner/and the landlord so he was/forced to cover it. (In case you still need to be filled in, though, check out these articles at Art Taco and Creative Loafing).
Now let’s unpeel the ?! one layer at a time.
Creative Loafing reports that property manager Gary Burnside requested “the mural’s removal two days after the opening, telling Collective that the gallery’s lease would be in jeopardy if the image were not taken down immediately.”
Would Gary Burnside’s curatorial hijacking have been tolerated in any other major arts city? Consider, what surely would have happened if this drama unfolded in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Wynwood, San Francisco, L.A. The idea of a property manager imposing his views on art on his tenants would rightly be considered absurd. Likely, a stronger gallery community would have largely denounced Gary Burnside and developer Tom Gaffney as well as dismissed the neighborhood as unfit for serious galleries.
In our mounting, but still fledgling art scene, however, galleries can be bullied without recourse. The camaraderie of the St. Petersburg visual art community is impressive. However, we don’t have the strong collector base that would give our galleries the financial leverage needed to defend themselves or move on. Rather, in lieu of any real options, Collective Tattoo and Gallery is left to bow to the personal impositions of its landlord, and we’re left to wag our heads in disapproval.
As the above Creative Loafing excerpt mentions, the mural was only displayed for two days prior to being covered. Because I haven’t spoken to all parties involved, I can’t say with total certainty that no alternatives were offered (e.g. a window covering) and no civil discourse was had. Considering, Allen Hampton painted over his mural and Burnside resorted to an ultimatum, it seems unlikely that any rational conversation took place.
My gripe here, is not that Burnside (and perhaps Gaffney by association) were being mean – it’s unrealistic to expect otherwise in business. This is my gripe: The apparent lack of any real discourse suggests that the property manager’s decision was an emotional one rather than a pragmatic one.
True concern for the property would logically lead to the utilization of realistic alternatives which would satisfy all parties. Exacting an ultimatum in which the only realistic option is for the gallery and artist to destroy the mural seems to betray a leverage of authority in order to satiate a personal offense at a work of art. That would be morally wrong. Further, for a block that purports to be a creative neighborhood these types of managerial tactics are terribly disappointing.
I’m not going to bother trying to explain how to critically deconstruct art (as opposed to blindly reacting to it) – if you’re reading an art blog, you probably already know how to do this. However, I thought it would be prudent to at least address Burnside’s quotes in the above mentioned Creative Loafing article.
“This artist is nothing. For him to disparage Martin Luther King’s legacy — give me a break” – The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr isn’t so fragile as to be irreconcilably sullied by a mural in a tattoo parlor. Further, the mural isn’t even ‘about’ Martin Luther King. Instead the mural is concerned with his image in our visual lexicon and the power we invest in it. This is obvious by the way Hampton juxtaposes the image of MLK with a similarly powerful (albeit hateful) image. The same effect could have been achieved by contrasting any two loaded but diametrically opposed images.
“Some people don’t think. They just think they’re an artist and they can say and do anything they want to.” – Actually, artists can do almost anything they want – it’s the fundamental nature of art. However, that doesn’t mean the result will be good and/or tasteful art. There are lines to be drawn, though. Two lines, that is – a personal line, and a collective line. We must determine what we permit to be art personally and as a society. Burnside can draw his personal line where ever he pleases. However our collective line, our standard of what we as a community permit to be art, should be drawn but not here. It should be drawn, not by an individual (and certainly not by a landlord), but by the creative community.
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The 600 Block helped revitalize St. Petersburg as a whole and establish the city as an arts destination. There are great artists and galleries that work and exhibit on the block. The music venues are some of the best in the Bay area.
However, this kind of drama is unacceptable. Gallerists should expect to not be micromanaged, bullied into ultimatums, forced to cede curatorial control, or be treated like children.
Indeed, this kind of administration could drag the 600 Block through a cultural regression and right back into artistic irrelevance.