Please Keep Art Safe, 1995
On the October 3, 1992 live broadcast of Saturday Night Live, Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor was the evening’s musical guest. She performed an a capella version of Bob Marley’s War, changing the lyric of “racism” to “child abuse.” And while singing the final lyric “evil,” O’Connor held up a photograph of Pope John Paul II, tore it to bits, and declared to the audience, “fight the real enemy.” Silence followed. Cut to commercial.
The producers of SNL were caught off guard and received over 3000 calls of protest. O’Connor defended her actions calling to task the Catholic Church for allowing the abuse of children by clergy to go unchecked (strangely prescient considering recent revelations of abuse in the church). Over the ensuing weeks O’Connor was generally vilified – three weeks later at a Bob Dylan tribute concert in Madison Square Garden, she was booed off the stage.
To Catholics and many others, Sinéad O’Connor’s defiling of a photo of the Pope was an act of blasphemy. And it may sound surprising, but if not for a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1940, O’Connor could have been arrested and prosecuted for inciting breach of the peace and criminal blasphemy.
Back in 1939, Newton Cantwell, a Jehovah’s Witness, along with his two sons were proselytizing in a Catholic neighborhood in Connecticut. Carrying a portable phonograph and literature, the three went knocking door to door. They played for two gentleman a record that described all organized religious systems as “instruments of Satan,” and called out the Roman Catholic Church in particular. Deeply offended, the men basically wanted to throttle the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but instead called the police. They were arrested and convicted for inciting breach of the peace among other charges.
The Cantwells appealed and claimed that they were denied their freedom of speech and prohibited their free exercise of religion under the first Amendment. The 1940 Supreme Court agreed unanimously and set a precedent that basically made any previous laws against blasphemy in the US a dead letter. The 1940 decision explains, that “the tenets of one man may seem the rankest error to his neighbor.” And that in a democracy an individual’s right to resort to exaggeration and vilification are liberties “essential to enlightened opinion.” And under the “shield” of these liberties, “many types of life, character, opinion, and belief can develop unmolested and unobstructed.”
That an individual has the right to offend someone, and even to do so deeply, to make their point – in speech, writing, art, performance, film, etc. – is a tremendous right. It protects from criminal prosecution, but it does not protect from outrage, rejection, and recrimination. The “Culture Wars” and “Political Correctness” of the nineties showcased how to better control unsafe expression. There was the gutting of the NEA’s budget and the addition of “advisory language” regarding decency in grant applications. Both in reaction to funding a retrospective of the sexual explicit photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and the photograph by Andres Serrano of a crucifix immersed in his own urine. Or there was the prosecution of University of Pennsylvania student Eden Jacobowitz under the school’s speech code. He was accused of intending “water buffalo” to be a racial epithet yelled at some late night noisemakers who happened to be black.
A return to the days of prosecuting for blasphemous statements may not be possible. (In 1811 People v. Ruggles, the conviction of a New Yorker was upheld for saying “Jesus Christ was a bastard and his mother must be a whore.” NY Supreme Court Justice Hale affirmed that the danger of of blasphemy lay in its tendency to “strike at the root of moral obligation” and called blasphemous “words and actions dangerous to the public welfare.”) So the preference became to find ways to encourage self-censorship. If unsure whether a particular piece of speech may be offensive to some or most individuals, it’s better left unsaid.
1995, Redirect the Flow of Art, p. 2
Sometime around 1992 I was reading the summary reviews of movies playing in the area in my local paper the Hartford Courant. Each review listed the film rating – G, PG, PG-13, or R – but what struck me was how each assigned rating gave additional clarification. “R, with tame and randy bedroom scenes, lots of mayhem.” “PG-13, with nudity and sensual scenes for the witch, gross out effects” “PG, with naughty ninja tricks, nasty talk.” And with no additional explanation apparently needed “G.”
My favorite was “R, hemorrhaging in blood and guts.” It’s as if the letter itself is bleeding to death. These additional explanations were part of the MPAA’s change to the rating system made in 1990. The big news in the change was actually the end of the X rating and the start of the NC-17 rating. The pornographic stigma of an X rating was supposed to be avoided with NC-17, but most media outlets saw through the new rating’s disguise and would not advertise movies with an NC-17 rating either. As a result NC-17 ratings are equally avoided by filmmakers if they wish for their film to be commercially viable.
So the more lasting impact of the rule change is on the published descriptions of each film rating, which is now often described as a film’s “full rating.” There were many rules and society norms that I attributed to a culture of safety that was prevalent through the 80s and into the early 90s.
1995, Redirect the Flow of Art, p. 13
Examples include New York which in 1984 became the first state to require drivers and passengers wear seat belts. Zero tolerance policies came in vogue in a number of states – school discipline (automatic expulsions for certain offenses) and sentencing guidelines (three strikes laws). There was the emergence of gated communities with their fences and private security guards. and in 1984.
Everyone seemed afraid of something at the time – there were numerous choices – AIDS, Nuclear War, Crack Epidemic, Ecological Disaster (Exxon Valdez & Chernoboyl), etc. These events of the 80s were some of the archetypes of upheaval at the time. But the reaction by society to establish a sense of safety was a very different reaction to the social upheavals of the 60s and 70s. This time there was going to be control.
Being an adolescent in the 80s, it often felt like we were being punished for the previous generation’s bad behavior. I always sensed that the rules were being rewritten with an effort to keep a closer eye on this generation. It’s a silly, but one example was how high school seniors were no longer allowed to leave campus for free period. Everyone had to go to the cafeteria, where you could hang-out, play cards, whatever. But the days of driving off to do all the things you wanted to do or weren’t supposed to do were gone.
Tags: Artist's Book
1992, Intaglio print on paper.
It resulted from an argument I had with a Jesuit Priest. “Michael, art cannot be trivial. You cannot make art from trivia. Art cannot be a trash can.”
This was how Father William O’Halloran let me know that my proposed sculpture installation for Swords Hall would not be allowed. Fr. O’Halloran was Vice President of Holy Cross in the spring of 1992 and he had, earlier in the semester, allowed me to install a sculpture temporarily in front of Hogan Campus Center. That success inspired me to try again.
In retrospect, I understand that every proposal made by an undergraduate seeking attention for his art cannot be indulged. But it was how he said “no” that was disturbing to me. The dialogue drifted into a polemic on the definition of art and its value.
I documented Fr. O’Halloran’s statements about art in my journal at the time. “It must be lasting. It must be exquisite. It must be magnificent.” I admit I did provoke him by asking if he believed Jesus was an artist. To which he answered, “Jesus Christ was not an artist.” Why not? “He didn’t paint anything, he didn’t draw or sculpt. Art may be directed performance, written word, music.” But he spoke freely about his beliefs and affected millions. “Jesus Christ was not an artist.”
This was an argument that I wasn’t going to win. The piece would not be displayed.
Though I couldn’t install the work, I didn’t let the conversation end there. I made 18-20 intaglio prints of a trash can on paper and stenciled each with one of Fr. O’Halloran’s statements in red ink. I posted them throughout Fenwick Hall, the main academic building on campus and home to the deans (mostly Jesuits) and Fr. O’Halloran.
After about a week, only a few remained, which I decided to take down and save. Fr. O’Halloran and I didn’t discuss art ever again, but it got back to me that a few faculty had taken the prints and put them up in their offices.
The words and definitions of “it” as “art” stuck with me. They became the seeds of inspiration for many future works about art, religion, and safety.