Turns out the Smithsonian isn’t the only museum without a spine.
For this spring’s Art in the Streets exhibition, “the first major museum survey of the history of graffiti and street art presented in the United States,” Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art’s new director Jeffrey Deitch, a longtime advocate for street art and the first private gallery owner to run an American museum, commissioned Italian street artist Blu to paint a mural on the museum’s wall. Last month, Blu painted a series of coffins wrapped in dollar bills. The next day, the museum painted over it.
“It is censorship that almost turned into self-censorship when they asked me to openly agree with their decision to erase the wall,” Blu told The Guardian. “In the Soviet Union they were calling it ‘self-criticism.’ Deitch invited me to paint another mural over the one he erased, and I will not do that.”
Deitch claimed that part of the issue was timing. “Blu was supposed to fly over the second-to-last week in November, so we could have conversations about it in advance,” he told the LA Times. “But he said he had to change his flights, so he ended up working in isolation without any input” while Deitch was out of town for the art fair in Miami.
Deitch called the anti-war mural “inappropriate” and said he decided to have the mural removed when he first saw it. The reason behind his decision has to do with the wall’s location, which is in front of the Go For Broke Monument that honors Japanese-American soldiers who fought in World War II and opposite of the LA Veterans’ Affairs Hospital. Neither organization protested the mural. “There were zero complaints, because I took care of it right away,” Deitch said. He did, however, ask Blu to finish the mural so the museum could document it as part of the exhibit for its catalog.
The PR mess is no walk in the park for MOCA or Deitch, who was hailed to breathe fresh air into the stagnation of museums because of his gallery experience. Yet “the difference between a commission from a public institution and one made for a private business is vast,” the LA Times reported. “A commercial gallery has wide latitude to be quick and dirty. An art museum is culture’s thoughtful professional custodian. Now, a potentially offending museum mural has been replaced by a metaphoric public billboard that says, ‘Amateur Hour at MOCA.’”
But that wasn’t the end. According to the LA Times, veterans and street and graffiti artists gathered in MOCA’s parking lot last week and staged a “guerrilla protest performance” by “projecting laser graffiti out of the backseat of a silver VW Passat with a laptop perched precariously on the roof of the car.” The artists took turns tagging the wall with a laser graffiti gun. The computer program was designed to make the tags look like dripping paint as they hit the wall. About an hour into the performance, the artists projected a photo of Blu’s mural back onto the wall with the word “censorship” superimposed in red across the image.
A video that documents the protest was released the next day:
“I think he (Deitch) was absolutely wrong,” said Center for the Study of Political Graphics executive director Carol Wells, who helped document the protest. “He was trying to do an edgy exhibit, hires an artist known to be edgy. Pushing the boundaries is the very definition of a street artist– so what did he expect?”
More than censorship, MOCA, like the Smithsonian and NewSouth Press, even like the prevalent violent rhetoric in the media and politics that contributed to the Tucson shooting, is yet another ramification of today’s playground discourse– that is, you can either be the bully, or you can play nice, but you can’t speak up in class if you want to say something constructive. Unless you’re constructing to hurt someone else’s feelings. It’s childish.
Part of growing up means that we learn to look beyond the simplified cliches of bully/play nice and realize that life is not easily definable, and most of the world is grey. To approach it from this black-and-white pre-emptive censorship so that we don’t hurt anyone’s feelings not only disconnects MOCA and its exhibit from the reality of street art, it also ostracizes itself from the varying complexities of the exhibition’s context and sabotages a very critical element of street art–protest.
Edgy art isn’t supposed to make us feel good about ourselves. If it did, we’d call it smooth. But provocation is jagged, meant to jar at us, because it’s those dissonances that cut deeper into our reactions than a dose of whatever pacifies. With edginess comes courage, because you need to be brave enough to not only defend provocation, but then ask, “well, why does it bother you?”
But to bring that art in and (literally) whitewash it away before any complaints shows more than self-censorship in an ocean of violent political metaphors; it shows a new curator who’s more eager to make friends than he is in progressing art.
Photo courtesy of Stefan Kloo via Flickr
Note: The above photo is of a protest piece by an anonymous LA street artist to protest MOCA's removal of Blu's anti-war mural. The location of this protest piece on a wall known as a "neighborhood editorial space" is several blocks away from the museum's location.