Why bowing to censorship is a bad idea

The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts–a briliant funder of the arts–has demanded that the Smithsonian restore David Wojnarovicz’s censored artwork to its exhibition. If the Smithsonian does not comply, the Warhol Foundation will cease funding future exhibitions at the Smithsonian. In the past three years the Warhol Foundation has given more than $375,000 to the Smithsonian.

Cheers to the Warhol Foundation. Sometimes it seems like people in the arts are so consumed with etiquette, so afraid of offending someone or burning a bridge, they haven’t got any guts. Cheers to the Warhol Foundation for putting your money where your mouth is!

This follows a national grassroots movement to exhibit the censored works at alternative art spaces and galleries. Participating spaces include the San Francisco Bay Area’s Southern Exposure and SF Camerawork.

If you are able, please support the work of these amazing nonprofits by becoming members. They are only able to support the work of artists via risk-taking funders like the Warhol Foundation, and individual members like you and me. For further backstory on the homophobic, politically-motivated censorship of this work by a seminal American artist, please see Blake Gopnik’s articles in the Washington Post.

Art & Development

what freelancers eat

The Ethicist chimes in on artists’ pay (New York Times, November 19, 2010).

Fair warning to non-profits and other workplaces where the culture of scarcity is king: just as two wrongs do not make a right, very right or well-intentioned causes do not make lower standards of conduct acceptable. Rent, unfortunately, is not due only when foundations send checks. And the grocer doesn’t take good karma in exchange for deli meat.

I hire freelance artists for a national magazine facing tough financial times. Must I tell them that they might be paid late or perhaps not at all? If I do, they might decline the job, and we cannot produce the magazine. If I don’t, I burn a lot of bridges. My superiors assured me that they will start paying contributors, but they said that for months with no results.


You may not tell a lie to your freelancers, even a lie of omission, even for the good of the magazine. (Nor may you hijack their cars and use them to deliver the new issue.) You must treat your would-be contributors honestly, as I infer you know, hence your discomfort and your question. That means giving them the best assessment you can of when they will be paid, although this might induce some to turn down assignments.

And you should tell your superiors as much. Their determination to keep the magazine alive in lean times may mean giving up limousines, massages and deluxe lunches; it does not mean giving up ordinary business ethics. They may tighten their belts, but not around someone else’s throat.


Thank you for showing me what not to do

Ken, my printmaking professor, was great because he’d often demonstrate what not to do. Much of the time, he didn’t do it on purpose. In showing how to clean up an inkwell, for example, he might fumble a putty knife or splash the mineral spirits. But the gaffs were common, and it taught you how to recover when you invariably made the same mistakes. More importantly, Ken’s teaching was infused with kindness and good humor, and his unconventional ways were ultimately effective and valuable.

I am a big proponent of artists setting goals and identifying role models: Who do you look up to and why? Are they successful? Happy? Do they treat people around them well? Do they look like they’re having fun? Identifying and answering these questions for yourself helps to shape a vision for the kind of life in the arts that you want to lead.

On occasion, there are opportunities to identify negative traits and behaviors that you would not like to emulate. Perhaps these come courtesy of an unscrupulous colleague, who abuses the art field’s unsanctioned nature to claim a status that wasn’t actually gained. Or maybe a supervisor whose treatment of colleagues is unethical or morale-killing.

I choose to view the art world as a series of communities populated by bright, hard-working individuals who are in it because they appreciate art and want to share their enthusiasm. There are, unfortunately, unsavory individuals who would prove me wrong.

In the book “Why Smart Executives Fail,” Sydney Finkelstein, of Dartmouth, observes that “spectacularly unsuccessful” people (mere failure doesn’t qualify; you have to wreak havoc and ruin lives) have certain traits in common. These people see themselves and their companies as “dominating their environments.” They demand total allegiance and have the answer to every problem. (James Surowiecki, “Local Zeroes,” New Yorker, March 28, 2005)

These people are exceptional. It’s up to the rest of us to minimize the damage they do, and to defend the perception of artists, arts workers and the art field. We do that by upholding our values, and being vigilant, accountable, and optimistic.