For avant-garde musician John Zorn, the naked Japanese women in S&M; bondage that adorn his "Torture Garden" CD are an aesthetic statement that cannot be separated from the discordant jazz he creates.
For many in the Asian American community, they are flat-out pornography. Earlier this year, several national groups called on Zorn to withdraw two of his CDs from distribution, condemning the covers for portraying Asian women in a stereotypical and demeaning fashion.
The controversy is gathering steam: Earlier this summer, Zorn lost a gig in New York and a San Francisco radio station withdrew sponsorship of a Zorn concert after Asian Americans complained.
"If these are his personal proclivities, I have no objection to that, but it becomes a public act when he disperses these images into the marketplace and he's certainly accountable for them and for having them critiqued," said Richard Oyama, a scholar and poet who is active in the San Francisco-based artist group, Godzilla West.
Asian Americans also object to a Zorn CD called "Naked City," which includes images and text referring to a historic form of Chinese capital punishment in which a living person's body is dismembered. A written explanation in Japanese says the CD is dedicated to this theme.
Zorn, 40, a New York-based saxophonist who has lived in Japan for much of the past decade and speaks fluent Japanese, says he is shocked by the vehemence of the attacks. He says the images were not chosen lightly but reflect his own interest and explorations into the dark side of human experience.
"I'm not an insensitive person," Zorn said in a telephone interview. "I understand the concerns of the Asian American community. I don't want to make it more difficult for them."
The artist says that after the complaints started, he asked his Japanese record label to stop importing the CDs on a temporary basis. In the meantime, he has offered to wrap the offending CDs in plain covers or add a disclaimer explaining that the graphic images "have been used for their transgressive quality, illustrative of those areas of human experience hidden in the gaps between pain and pleasure, life and death, horror and ecstasy. They are not and were never intended to denigrate or insult any particular person or groups of persons."
But Asian American groups say that's not enough.
"It's not like we can just slap a Band-Aid on it and say, 'Fine,' " says Sherwin Yoon, a spokesman for the New York-based Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence. "We appreciate the steps he has taken, but we were hoping to work closer with him to bring this greater issue to light. There needs to be a lot more discussion about misrepresentation of Asians in the media and the art world."
An exasperated Zorn says he isn't willing to go any further.
Quirky and esoteric, Zorn is a leading figure in New York's experimental art scene, where he focuses on making music solo, with collaborators or with his longtime band Naked City. Zorn is resolutely unconcerned about reaching a mass market and has a small but influential following. Few of his 30 or so recordings have sold more than 10,000 copies.
Zorn says he draws inspiration from French writer Georges Battaille, whose literature dealt with erotic and taboo themes, the macabre theater of Grand Guignol and the often-shocking photographs of Joel-Peter Witkin--who takes viewers into a nightmarish world of sexual deviance, cadavers and circus freaks.
His tastes are omnivorous and eclectic. His recordings have included a tribute to the music of film composer Ennio Morricone and avant-garde jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman. For his next Naked City project, Zorn is putting a Coleman spin on traditional Jewish klezmer music, friends say.
Zorn says he chooses the images on his CDs carefully to complement the music. Sometimes the images even inspire the music. The controversial covers--which Zorn says were released without problem in Japan--are designed in collaboration with Tomoko Tanaka, a female graphic artist in Japan. According to Zorn, both the music and art come out of deep personal experience mixed with an outsider aesthetic.
"When I lived in Japan, I got involved in the S&M; torture scene," Zorn says. "I lived those images. If someone criticizes me, they're not looking at the scope of my work, as an artist who deals with these themes in a consistent way. I've used Caucasians in violent situations too."
Zorn's friends and supporters say the artist is a moral person who is being used as a scapegoat to further a political agenda.
"People are unfairly assuming that he's exploiting and taking advantage of these photos . . . and that's not true," says Michael Dorf, owner of the Knitting Factory, a New York-based performance space and record label that specializes in avant-garde music.
"John has artistic integrity. He's got a huge collection of art that has to do with this theme. He's done research on it. He's immersed and obsessed with Asian culture. He's not doing this without a consciousness about what it means for women and Asian women and the history of the Japanese exploiting other Asian countries."
Battles over artistic freedom in music-related imagery are nothing new. Past furors include a mid-1970s flap over an ad for the Rolling Stones' "Black and Blue" album that featured a bruised, tied-up woman. Geffen Records reissued a Guns N' Roses CD after complaints about the initial "Appetite for Destruction" cover, which reproduced a Robert Williams painting of a robot raping a woman. Last year, women's groups lodged protests against rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg, saying an eight-panel cartoon on the "Doggystyle" CD degraded women.
But the controversy defies easy solutions.
"This raised a lot of questions for me," confesses Ginny Z. Berson, program director at KPFA, Berkeley's Pacifica radio station whose phone lines were flooded with angry callers, many of them Asian American, after the station broadcast a Zorn concert in January.
Following the uproar, KPFA withdrew sponsorship of a concert by Zorn planned for San Francisco's Great American Music Hall. Berson also instructed a DJ to discuss the controversy on the air before playing Zorn's music and put together a talk show program on the issue.
"Our mission is to promote understanding, the building of bridges between people of different cultures and groups . . . and artwork that depicts torture of Asian women does not promote that," Berson said.
"But what does John Zorn playing his sax have to do with that?" she added rhetorically. "And what about Miles Davis' misogyny? Does that mean we have to discuss his attitudes toward women each time we play his music?"
Zorn's invitation to play at the New York Museum of Natural History's 125th anniversary celebration in June was rescinded after Asian Americans there complained, according to the artist and Dorf, who helped broker the concert. A spokeswoman for the museum said a contract was never signed, but conceded there had been discussions with Zorn and that he was dropped because of complaints.
Zorn says he's sorry about the lost gigs but that he's not about to compromise.
"As an artist you can't please everyone," Zorn says. "If I took all their criticism to heart I'd never create anything. I don't want to make it harder for Asians in this country; I'm on their side. But frankly, I don't think my records are doing that."