Sunday, October 07, 2007

An Artist Encounters Censorship

I have been working on improving my photography skills during this "creative sabbatical" year, and have been toying with the idea of exhibiting some of my photographs. The opportunity arose when I saw a call for entries for the annual Cornwall Photography Show, held annually at Town Hall. My daughter, Jules Kelly, is a also a good photographer, and we decided that it would be fun to enter the exhibit together. So on Monday morning I took four of my photographs and three of hers into town.

The organizer took one look at Julia's photograph entitled "Bush Poster," and declared that it could not be hung, as "this is a government building." I asked her to check with the Town Supervisor Richard Randazzo, since Freedom of Speech is a fundamental right in our consitution. She did, and he also refused.

Granted, Julia's photograph is quite edgy, and it does represent her political point of view. On the other hand, art has long had an important function in our national discourse. The earliest recorded American political cartoon ran in Ben Franklin's newspaper The Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1754, accompanying an editorial by Franklin urging the colonies to unite against the British.

I was with Julia in Amsterdam when she took the Bush photograph, and I know that one of the things that struck her was how surprising it is to see the deterioration of the United States' relationship with the Netherlands. They have always been a staunch U.S. ally, and from our many visits to Amsterdam, we know that the Dutch people typically embrace Americans. To Jules, this photograph represents not only her own feelings about Bush, but also how far we have fallen in our relationships with our European allies.

To me, the knee jerk conservative reaction of Randazzo's Town Hall is simply an extension of the national atmosphere created by the Bush administration, which is filled with political appointees who, qualified for their jobs or not, were hired because they are in lockstep with the administration's positions. We observed the consequences in New Orleans, with FEMA headed by people who didn't know how to coordinate an emergency response, and in post-war Iraq, with the reconstruction staffed with Bush loyalists who neither spoke Arabic nor had any experience with restoring a country's infrastructure. It's been well documented that people were asked about political loyalty as a condition for receiving those jobs. Somehow, in our post 9/11 world, the only way to show patriotism is to stifle dissent. This is a condition we accept at our peril, for in fact, this is contrary to how democracy is meant to work. A healthy democracy is populated by engaged citizens who have a point of view, who challenge authority when they don't agree, and who vote. If we are lucky, we will find our way back to that place, where people don't define themselves as Democrats or Republicans, but as American citizens, with all the privileges and responsibilities that it entails.

Despite this disappointment, the photography exhibit was a success. At opening reception on Friday Jules got very positive feedback from many people on her photograph entitled BREAK CONFORMITY BREAK STEEL.

Break Conformity Break Steel by Jules Kelly

She was one of two teens exhibiting there. The other, a SUNY New Paltz freshman and photography major named Emily Waterfield, also had a striking series of photographs of Adirondack chairs, photographed at the Mohonk Mountain House. The organizer is considering mounting a show next year featuring just the two of them, which was a very exciting development.

And, Jules' Bush photograph will soon be hung at the 2 Alices Coffee Lounge, so her voice has not been silenced after all.

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