For the past week or so, protesters demonstrated outside of a civic museum in Loveland*, CO. They alleged that an image on exhibit is blasphemous. The print is by satirist Enrique Chagoya, a longtime Bay Area painter and printmaker, and a faculty member at Stanford University. His work concerns politics, religion, colonialism, and consumer culture. As KQED’s Spark artist profile program describes, “Chagoya uses his work to critique the manner in which history has traditionally been written by those nations that have dominated and colonized others.” He is well-respected in the Bay Area art community; I know an artist who applied to Stanford’s MFA program strictly for Chagoya’s tutelage.
Yesterday, the Denver Post reported that a woman entered the museum, broke the plexiglass protecting the work, and tore the artwork. (An art dealer named Mark Michaels claims that he stopped the perpetrator. If this is true, I’d applaud Michaels while reminding us of Philip Zimbardo’s message after testifying at the Abu Ghraib trials: there are no such thing as heroes, only normal people like you and me who listen to their conscience and act.)
Fear-mongering is so powerful in our current political climate, I’d hate to think that museums and curators would consider capitulating to right-wing conservative agendas. Protesting is fine. Censorship is not. Nor is self-censorship. There’s no point to having freedom if you’re afraid to exercise it (not least for fear of controversy or jeopardized funding).
Instead of only acting in times of protest, here’s a letter of support, sent to the Loveland Museum Gallery Director and Curator:
Dear Ms Ison and Ms Corey,
I am writing in support of the Loveland Museum Gallery’s decision exhibit Enrique Chagoya’s work of art, “The Misadventures of Romantic Cannibals.”
Enrique Chagoya’s work represents an important perspective deserving of inclusion in museum exhibitions. I do not want artists to pander to audiences or censor themselves to safe, inoffensive content. Neither do I want institutions to waver in their support of risk-taking artists.
I did not agree that the work merited protest—especially by the protestors who didn’t see it, as reports indicated—but I respected their decisions to exercise their freedom of speech. Optimistically, I saw the protest an opportunity to engage in dialogue about art, and about the artist’s intentions, which were in reaction to child abuse in the church.
This potential for dialogue is much different now that Kathleen Folden destroyed the artwork in a shocking and saddening incident. This act of censorship is unacceptable. I am in favor of prosecution to the full extent of the law.
In the face of this controversy, and in media scrutiny that is following, I hope the Loveland Museum/Gallery remains courageous and continues to serve diverse publics and respect the critical faculties of its audience. Those protestors represent one portion of the public; their fears and accusations ought not alter the Museum’s direction.
Christine Wong Yap
New York, NY
CC: Stanford University Visual Art Department, Enrique Chagoya
In response to my email, I received a warm reply from Susan Ison, Cultural Services Director from the City of Loveland. She thanked me for my words of support and said that they will continue to exhibit the seven other codexes by Chagoya.