Artists Have 'No Stomach' for Censorship

No government can call artistic excellence into existence. . . . Nor should any government seek to restrict the freedom of the artist to pursue his goals in his own way. Freedom is an essential condition for the artist, and in proportion, if freedom is diminished, so is the prospect of artistic achievement.

--President Lyndon B. Johnson, upon signing the National Endowment for the Arts legislation into law, 1965.

Lyndon Johnson, meet Jesse Helms, devil's advocate to your plan for a politically unencumbered federal arts agency.

The conservative senator from North Carolina called the National Endowment for the Arts to task last month for exercising the very freedom it was mandated to provide. Outraged by the endowment's partial support of two exhibitions that included photographs exploring sexual and religious themes, Helms proposed an amendment to prohibit the NEA from allocating any funds to promote art deemed obscene, indecent or denigrating to any person or class of people. The Senate approved the amendment by voice vote July 26, and the issue--as well as proposed funding cuts of the NEA budget--will be taken up by a House-Senate Conference Committee after Labor Day.

Until now, public debate over Helms' measures has been confined to a verbal battleground, with editorials, petitions and letters flooding the media.

Paintings, photographs and sculptures will no longer play the role of silent victim, however, when the "No Stomach" show opens Friday at downtown's Installation gallery.

"We're hearing a lot about what politicians have to say, but we're the ones making the work," participating artist Elizabeth Sisco said. "I think it's important that we express our voice."

More than 50 artists from San Diego, Tijuana and Los Angeles have been invited to submit work that addresses the issues of censorship and expressive freedom raised by the current NEA controversy. Encouraged to create new works "that test either societal or personal taboos," about half of the artists produced work especially for the show, according to local artist Gary Ghirardi, who organized "No Stomach" with fellow artists Lynn Engstrom and Graciela Ovejero.

Ghirardi sees the show as "a maturity act, an act of solidarity among local artists," but perceptions of the show's purpose vary greatly among those involved.

"It's a surge of adrenaline," artist Cora Boyd said. "It's a way to vent our anger."

Engstrom stressed the educational importance of the show.

"I don't see it as just a protest. I see it as bringing the problem to the public. Many of the works are informative or visual puns on the issues."

One of the show's messages, she said, is that art can deal with difficult issues.

By providing a forum for local artists to deal with sensitive subjects, the show also promises to open a Pandora's box of San Diego's stickiest issues.

Stanley Fried's contribution to "No Stomach" confronts the "latent racism that exists in San Diego." On the opening day of the show, he will file a ballot initiative to name the city's new convention center the "San Diego White People's Convention Center." This, he said, will "fulfill the unwritten, unstated agenda of the Port Commission" in their refusal to name the center after slain civil rights activist the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"I don't expect the initiative to actually pass," Fried said. "The purpose is to engage the community in dialogue."

The promotional flier for the show features a photo collage by Steven Criqui, showing San Diego on a state map, covered by a TV dinner and surrounded by Faberge eggs--a comment on the upcoming Soviet arts festival.

The collaborative work of David Avalos, Louis Hock, Elizabeth Sisco and Deborah Small has always dealt with "questions of censorship, efforts at control by politicians and questions of community values," according to Avalos.

Added Sisco: "As artists in the community who have been censored, it is imperative that we participate in the show. We want to give people something to take away with them for further discussion in private realms about censorship in San Diego, and how the mayor's approach to art-making has made art a matter of political action and control."

The four artists produced a billboard earlier this year that mocked the city's attitude of boosterism and obliquely criticized its exploitation of undocumented workers and its failure to name the new convention center after King.

The billboard was funded by a grant from Installation gallery. Angered by the billboard's message, the City Council this summer voted to deny Installation any Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) funds, bypassing the City Commission for Arts and Culture's recommendation to grant the alternative space $42,000. In part because of community pressure, the City Council restored most of Installation's funds but put restrictions on their use.

This recent episode mirrors, in miniature, the ex post facto censorship and deviation from the peer review panel process that Helms threatens to inflict on the NEA.

"Our feeling is that, locally, Helms' agenda is already being practiced," Sisco said.

The much-beleaguered themes of sexuality, religious belief and patriotism will recur with insistence here as proof that such subjects are legitimate turf for artists. Raul Guerrero, whose work will contain the image of an American flag, defended the use of such recognizable symbols in art.

"The show has to do with the freedom to use symbols that exist in the environment," he said. "We use these symbols to interpret ourselves."

Criticism also will be focused on the subtler forms of censorship that exist within the art world itself. Nancy Barton will address the exclusion of women and minorities from the art world in a text to accompany the work of three such artists.

Margaret Honda's work will deal with the hostility of the art market toward work that is considered less than commercially viable.

Though "No Stomach" attempts to be little more than a symbolic gesture, Installation's sponsoring of the show is an active defiance of the City Council's efforts to stifle its expressive freedom. Installation's board of directors, which is running the gallery without a paid staff, unanimously agreed to support the show, according to board member Sandra Koteen.

"Installation is the perfect vehicle for this kind of show," she said. "We had no hesitation about hosting it."

Though the organization itself could not offer assistance beyond the use of its gallery space and nonprofit mailing privileges, several board members provided financial support for the show.

Whether the show will exorcise the spirit of censorship that haunts this gallery and the local art community or merely exercise it further remains to be seen. There's some whimsy in the "No Stomach" title of the show, Ghirardi admitted. "We are trying to get a reaction."

Without any overriding curatorial vision, however, the show is a "wild card," artist Hock said. "Those people looking for a fight will probably find it there. Those who are looking to show that controversy is OK will have made their point. If the work is sufficiently transcendent, if it has some body and depth to it, people will see its merit."

It's not hard to irritate people, he said, "but it is hard to get them to understand what you're doing."

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