Carol Becker

On May 11, 1988, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago was shaken to the core when a student painting triggered a sequence of events that fiercely engaged the city for three entire days. Rarely has a collision between the world of art and the world of politics exposed so many basic contradictions. Issues such as First Amendment rights, the limits of artistic freedom, the sanctity of the private domain, the relationship between the artist and the world at large, have become topics of public concern. Over the ensuing months the repercussions of this incident have spread throughout Chicago and throughout the national and international art community.

As chair of the Graduate Division of the School, I was involved in this incident from the beginning. After much consideration it has become clear to me that there is no simple right or wrong here, no one "truth" to be found through Cartesian analysis, no heart of the problem to be dissected, except perhaps the broken heart of the body politic. Because David Nelson's painting was conceived at a particular historical moment, it is necessary to recreate that moment and all its contingencies before an analysis can be achieved.



On the morning of the first day, David Nelson, a graduating senior, arrived at the School at 8:00 a.m. to hang a series of paintings, his entry in the Traveling Fellowship Competition (a closed exhibition open only to the school community). At this time every year the School is transformed into a gallery for one week, while graduating students presenting work in all media compete for cash prizes. Students draw lots for location and personally select what they will exhibit. There is no pre-screening.

David Nelson was lucky. He drew a prime location --a wall adjacent to the main entrance--a space no one entering the school could avoid. Nelson hung five paintings. One was a self-portrait of a confident young blond David Nelson embracing small doll-like figures representing various racial and ethnic groups. It was entitled, "I'm Sensitive and I Love All Humanity." Close by he hung another work, which was to become known as "the painting"--a crudely executed portrait of an overweight Mayor Harold Washington dressed only in white lacy women's underwear--bra, panties, garter-belt, and stockings--holding a pencil in his right hand, staring dejectedly from the canvas. The title was "Mirth and Girth."

 Before he had even completed hanging these paintings, someone had notified an Alderman and the media had also been called. By 9:30 the painting was being talked about on one of the City's major black radio stations, and the staff of the Chicago Defender (a newspaper circulated primarily in the black community) was already in the President's office.

The painting was causing a furor. By mid-afternoon, every newspaper, TV station, and radio show was somehow involved in the ruckus. Crowds began to gather outside the School's entrance. The School's security force was kept busy prohibiting non-students from entering the building. A shouting match had already ensued between predominantly white art students and predominantly black members of the community. These student artists were yelling "civil liberties," "freedom of expression," "First Amendment rights," while those from the community at large, angry that anyone would dare defame the memory of Harold Washington, were calling the students "racists."

In the meantime Tony Jones convened a small group of faculty, administration, and staff as an ad hoc advisory group to help him determine what actions, if any, should be taken. This group crammed into the Provost's office. As they deliberated, phones rang off the hook condemning the painting, and the press continued to gather in the administrative offices demanding a statement. Then suddenly the opportunity to make an academic decision was taken away as nine black Aldermen, who had just marched over from City Hall, stormed the School.

Only that afternoon a resolution was introduced in the City Council which began: "Whereas, the artist, David Nelson obviously exhibits some type of demented and pathological capacities... " This resolution provided justification for the aldermen's actions. It requested the removal of the painting and the withholding of city funds until it was taken down; however, it was not in any way a mandate for the removal of the painting by the aldermen. Nonetheless, alderwoman Dorothy Tillman and Alderman Alan Streeter paraded into the School, dramatically ripped the painting from the wall with bravado and theatrics, and stormed into the President's office, "Mirth and Girth" in tow. (The painting had already been damaged--a five inch gash in one corner.)

Now eleven strong, the Aldermen threatened to burn the painting right in the President's office. Luckily someone suggested that perhaps such an act might be hazardous and that it would be smarter to set fire to it outside, on the School lawn. By now the police, also locked in the President's office, had decided that the painting was "too inflammatory" to remain on the premises. It was at this point that they "arrested the painting" for having the "potential to incite a riot."

The seizure of the painting did little to abate the controversy. Crowds continued to build throughout the day. Many students who were still at the School (between the end of the semester and graduation) seemed initially concerned only with the issue of civil liberties. But soon they began to understand the complexity of the problem. Many of them found it a revelation to hear ways in which Nelson's image of Harold Washington deeply upset the black community at the School, as well as members of the black community in the city at large. They were amazed that one student's work could generate such an extreme response. Black students were torn. They were caught between their allegiance to the School, their identity as artists, and their sense that the primary contradiction of this event for them was not civil liberties but racism.

Students continued to debate among themselves and by evening, under pressure from the media to comment on the events, they drafted a simple group statement, which declared that the painting represented, "the sole view of one artist" and "did not represent the collective view." And continued: "Whether or not the content of the painting was offensive, it should have been allowed to stand in public view under protection of the First Amendment rights," because such an "infringement" of "basic constitutional rights was threatening to the freedom of artists everywhere." Finally the statement reiterated that the painting had been hung in a private Fellowship Competition, which was open to the school community but was not open to the general public.


Late in the evening of the first day, the school had been informed that as a result of the painting controversy, it was likely that a caucus of black legislators would introduce a bill demanding that all state funding be withdrawn from the entire corporation, museum and school. The school was advised to act quickly. The Art Institute chartered a plane and sent a contingent of School and Museum administrators, a lawyer and a student union representative to meet with the Black Caucus to see what could be done to stop the measure, which also called for the resignation of the School's President.

While this group was in Springfield, Marshall Field V--the President of the Museum Board of Trustees--accompanied by the President and Vice-President of the School, legal counsel and three other administrators met with Mayor Sawyer, his Corporation Counsel Judson Miner, Chief of Staff Sharon Gist Gilliam, and eleven Aldermen at City Hall. After many hours of grueling debate, the School promised to apologize to the City and its residents for the distress the painting had caused, and agreed not to display the painting in the future. It also promised that the School would continue its efforts to improve minority representation at all levels, with renewed dedication.

The meeting in Springfield, unlike that at City Hall, appeared to achieve a greater level of understanding on both sides. There were many rumors and misconceptions to dispel. For example, some members of the Black Caucus believed the painting had been hung in the museum among the Renoirs. Others thought it had been up on the walls for weeks and that faculty and students had seen it but had offered no criticism. The discussion made clear how little those outside the art world understood about the process of an art school. It was assumed, for example, that the School would have taken the painting down in a minute had it been of former Governor Ogilvie (who had just died) or Governor Thompson. The School's representatives assured the caucus that they had never taken a painting off the wall, no matter who was represented and no matter how compromising it might have been to any public official. The School had run into controversy before in dealing with student exhibits: live rats as part of a sculptural piece had been prohibited by the Board of Health, as had dead rats in a refrigerator, part of another installation. Mayor Daley had been portrayed as an aborted fetus. Jane Byrne and Ronald Reagan had been seen in an array of compromising postures. President Tony Jones, painted by none other than David Nelson, was shown as a suckling infant in the arms of a bare-breasted Madonna. But the School had never removed a painting or piece of artwork from the wall or from a gallery no matter how controversial its content.

Many School of The Art Institute faculty, students, and staff had worked in Washington's campaigns and were great supporters of the late Mayor. It was particularly painful to realize how the credibility of the entire School and Museum had been implicated in this incident. In the hope of changing this perception, they joined with the Caucus to issue a joint statement agreeing to work together, when possible. One issue both groups could readily agree upon was the need to increase minority representation among students, staff, and faculty. The school promised to work harder to improve the numbers of minority employees at all levels and to also improve external community relations.

The School contingent returned from Springfield with a sense that some understanding had been reached, and that something of the day-to-day life and purpose of an art school had been communicated. The City Hall meeting had unfortunately not felt as encouraging. A good deal of shouting and irrational pronouncements on the part of the aldermen had left top school administrators upset and anxious about events to come.

By late afternoon, Reverend Willie Barrow of Operation PUSH appeared on national television, flanked by ten black ministers, to denounce unspecified "racist practices" at the school and to demand greater black enrollment and representation. Barrow condemned the painting incident as "the latest in a series of escalating attacks and insults against the black community." This group called for "sanctions" against the Art Institute unless it implemented a "review policy" to prevent offensive paintings from being exhibited in the future.


A day of reckoning. By now the press had had time to take various stances. Syndicated Chicago columnist Mike Royko had called those who removed the painting "Alderboobs." One journalist had labeled the entire event a "panty raid." Another had called it an "Art Raid" by an "Alderposse." For some it was a great source of humor. For most it mirrored the chilling split between whites and blacks in the city which seemed to be intensifying each day.

The story was front page news nationally and internationally. Locally it was the only story. Faculty and staff had practically moved into the school to deal with the events minute by minute. Individuals from around the city called to condemn the School's publication of the full-page explanatory statements which had been agreed upon with the City Council. These callers chastised the Administration for being too weak and unwilling to stand up to the aldermen. Others accused the School of somehow having "encouraged" the creation of such a painting.

For those in the administration, this was a difficult day: A decision had to be reached whether or not to proceed with graduation as planned for the next day, in spite of the bomb threats and the fact that PUSH's Reverend Barrow had called for a demonstration one thousand strong to march on The Art Institute. The School was also anticipating at least a thousand people for graduation ceremonies; many would arrive just when the PUSH demonstrators were scheduled to reach the Art Institute. The students had also called for an "Artist's Be-In" to convene at Daly Plaza: It was feared that all these groups would collide and heated interchanges occur. To assuage some anxiety, the School increased security and asked for more city protection. Graduation was to go on as scheduled. Fortunately, this turned out to be the correct policy.

 The next day the School and Museum were secured like fortresses: police cars, plain clothes officers, and back-up forces were everywhere. Everyone was on edge. The administration knew that once graduation was over students would disperse and tensions would subside. Although the issues raised by the incident had not been resolved, it would be easier to focus on them in the summer without fear of a possible student/community confrontation.

Although there was almost palpable relief once graduation was over, there was also a deep sadness, a sense that things could never be quite the same again. The community of the school had been torn apart. It seemed there was no collective agreement as to why these events had occurred, or how they should have been negotiated. Relations between black faculty, staff, students and their white counterparts were extremely strained and self-conscious. Many Latinos, Asians, and other minorities felt alienated from all sides of the issue, and met independently to discuss their positions. The School's place in the community had been seriously challenged, and the inherent contradictions of a private and elite art school located in the center of a racially diverse urban center had been exposed.

 The challenge at this point was to step back, to understand what had occurred, to allow grievances to be articulated (however long that process might take) and ultimately to heal the damage that had been done. It is only now, after some time has passed, that the complexity of the events reveals itself in all its dimensions. To understand its many aspects it is necessary to view the incident within its social context.


"An art work is not an isolated physical phenomenon. It is a manifestation of a moment in the historical process of living."

-a South African artist

Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor died on 23 November 1987. Those who worked for him still refer to him lovingly, as "the mayor." He was the first person to truly crack the Machine stranglehold on City politics. To elect him, twice, required the combined forces of progressive people from every community and from every ethnic and racial group. This was a unity never before achieved in Chicago politics. It was an historic victory. But this coalition had not had enough time to really solidify. The allegiances were still precarious: Unresolved contradictions, paranoias and ancient rivalries continued to exist and then began to resurface in Chicago immediately after the mayor died unexpectedly at the age of sixty-five.

Although considerable time has passed since his death, there are many who are still in shock and mourning. Those who loved the mayor, those who worked hard to get him elected, have not forgotten him or overcome their grief. Hundreds of thousands of people walked past his open casket as he lay in state (David Nelson among them). They are still saddened by the sense of loss, which is only exacerbated by the lack of a suitable successor. Much of what Harold Washington stood for has been destroyed by divisiveness, corruption and a jockeying for power. Many have used their former closeness to him to try to win the black community to their side, while others, who were never really supportive of Washington, have misrepresented their relationship with him in order to win political power.

 When the incident of the painting occurred, there were many who were deeply upset by Nelson's work, but there were some who "used" the incident for their own ends. They saw in it an opportunity for grandstanding, for proving themselves the true guardians of Washington's memory. It was easy to rally loyal Washington supporters around such an issue. But had these Aldermen sincerely wanted to protect the Mayor's memory, they could have done so in a much more useful manner. As Clarence Wilson wrote: "Their actions changed a private, juried exhibition into a public spectacle played out in the full glare of the media and gave wide circulation and notoriety to an inept and artistically shallow work."(2)

 The incident could have been hidden from the media, dealt with quietly among leaders of the community and of the school. But instead, the media was actually solicited, used to record certain figures as they marched dramatically from the school, spoils in hand. Art critic Harold Haydon said of the Aldermen's behavior: "They overreacted. Harold Washington would have ignored this. He was too smart. This was a dumb thing to do." (3) The Aldermen acted inappropriately, taking the law into their own hands, creating even further racial tension and almost inciting a riot.

This incident, however, was only one among many which have caused dramatic splits between blacks and whites and between blacks and other minorities in Chicago. Prior to the conflicts around the painting, there was another incident which received national attention. Seemingly unrelated, the Steve Cokely affair was in fact a crucial motivating force propelling members of the black community to respond to Nelson's painting as aggressively as they did.

Steve Cokely, an aide to the acting Mayor, Eugene Sawyer, made certain anti-semitic remarks in lectures delivered at the Black Nation of Islam from August 1985 to November 1987. The gravity of these accusations shocked Jews and non-Jews alike. Among other things, he alleged that Jewish doctors on the South Side of Chicago were injecting black babies with the AIDS virus, and he later alluded to a Jewish conspiracy to "rule the world."(4) These remarks caused many to demand that Cokely be fired. It took Sawyer a week to make this decision. When he did, certain factions in the black community were enraged. They felt that Cokely's First Amendment rights had been violated. Reverend Herbert Martin, an important figure in the community, defended Cokely by saying that "there was a ring of truth" to Cokely's statements. Any unity which had once existed between Blacks and Jews had come undone.

Such unfortunate polarizations are not new to Chicago, but they seem to occur more frequently on the national level as well. As Salim Muwakkil wrote in In These Times: "The Zeitgeist of racial intolerance has trickled down from the ruling Reaganauts to Hayden Lake, Idaho, to the college campuses, to the inner cities... "(5) Eight years of Reagan has done nothing but increase tension and frustration among people who have had little, if any, outlet for political expression. It has also helped to cause a certain scapegoating of Jews, the most vulnerable representatives of the white power base.

The Cokely incident was only one of many indications of how tense race relations had become nationally and of how chaotic Chicago politics had become since the mayor's death. But there is no doubt that this event, which occurred only one week before the painting incident, was equated with it in the minds of some in the black community. As Alderman Streeter said when asked why he thought David Nelson painted the painting: "It's all related. I don't feel it's a coincidence. I feel the fellow is a Jewish person who is defaming the Mayor I love... "(6) Streeter was merely speculating, based on the proximity of the painting event to the Cokely expose. It was thought that the painting was done in retaliation. (Nelson is not, in fact, Jewish.)

 During this time, there were those who reasoned: "If Cokely was not protected under the First Amendment, if he was not permitted the right to make anti-semitic remarks with impunity, then David Nelson should not be allowed to display a racist painting." The Black Caucus in Springfield even asked for the resignation of Tony Jones reasoning that if Cokely was fired, then Jones should also be fired. But the analogy simply did not hold up. There was a great difference between a young student exhibiting a tasteless painting in a school competition, however racist his intent, and a mayoral aide, supposedly responsible to the Chicago community, making serious accusations against the Jewish community over a two-year period. Unfortunately, all logical thinking had fallen by the wayside. The tenor of events was captured in Alderman Streeter's assertion that, "I don't care what the law, what the Supreme Court says, that painting will never go back up on the wall. If it does I'll tear it down myself."(7) The ACLU lawyer defending Nelson said that the last time he heard such a denunciation of the First Amendment was in the South during the Civil Rights campaign and it came from irate white racists. History had come full circle.


"No one, especially the artist, has a right to be indifferent to the social order."

-From the Manifesto of "Los Interioristas"

The aldermen were not the only ones suffering from a myopic view of reality. David Nelson had his own subjective and less than lucid understanding of what was going on in Chicago. He was unnerved by a poster on sale called "Worry ye not." It was an image of Jesus Christ and Harold Washington, side by side, hovering over Chicago as angels and protectors of the City. Nelson interpreted this combined image as a sacrilege. Harold Washington was mortal, not an angel or savior, thought Nelson. He wanted to pull him from the sky. For Nelson this image was particularly offensive because not only did it deify Washington but it defamed Jesus. If Washington had become an icon, Nelson was quite literally going to smash him and bring him down to earth. In an interview with the New Art Examiner Nelson said: "I guess in this city there are certain deities. Washington is a deity and you can't touch him. It wasn't Washington I wanted to poke a hole in--like a balloon. It was the deity aspect... I'm an iconoclast, I guess I mean a person who doesn't believe in icons."(8)

 A follower of Jesus Christ, Nelson admits to finding portraits of Christ within the Museum collection offensive, even though he is quick to state that he would never consider having them removed. In discussions he also indicated a definite uneasiness with images of gay male eroticism that had been displayed in last year's Fellowship Competition. It is not coincidental that he chose to disempower the image of Harold Washington by emasculating it. In a stereotypically homophobic manner, he insinuated that the illusion of virility people equated with Washington only concealed some type of sexual deviance.

To add to the sting, and to eliminate any question as to whether or not he was making an anti-gay statement, Nelson titled the painting "Mirth and Girth," the name of a Chicago club for overweight gay men. Nelson's provocative and tasteless attempt to defame a beloved black leader prompted the New York Times to call the painting "savage." Michael Brenson wrote: It is utterly unsentimental, with something of the no-holds barred satire of "Saturday Night Live." Largely because of its indifference to the offense it could give, it has touched raw nerves and unleashed a storm of vindictiveness and anger.(9) It is important to note that Nelson's image does not so much depict the behavior of gay men, who do not usually dress in women's underwear, as it does transvestites or cross-dressers. It seems to be perversion that interested Nelson, but the negative power for the black community was undoubtedly primarily that it alluded to femaleness and gayness.

 Nelson's decision to dress Harold Washington in women's underwear creates a provocative image which is both racist and anti-gay. White men have for centuries attempted to undermine black male virility. They have also attempted to negate the importance and power of black leaders, in whatever way they could. Given the history of racism, it is not surprising that black men have come to fear emasculation. Given the fact that the culture is anti-gay, it is not surprising that black men have come to equate one form of emasculation with gayness. It is therefore understandable that many members of the black community have become homophobic. Had this not been the case, the painting would never have received the response it did. Were Nelson not himself homophobic, he might not have painted the painting at all. The image of Washington presented on WLUP radio would have meant nothing to him. Add to this complexity layered signification, Nelson's portrayal of the Mayor with splayed feet, an overweight body (which was one of the primary causes of the Mayor's death) and a pencil, which Alton Miller thought Washington had bent down to retrieve when he was actually doubled over in pain, and you can understand why Brenson called the painting "savage."

Many journalists writing about the painting, unwilling to think through the problem, have too readily accepted Nelson's sense of this work as iconoclasm. But this is a misnomer. Iconoclasts traditionally attempt to disempower those whose entrenched position has been oppressive to others, whose rigidly fixed and venerated image leaves no room for interpretation. There is usually a goal in mind, a need to discredit the sacredness of the image in order to liberate that which has been repressed or unspoken. In Nelson's mind Washington might have had this kind of power, but in reality he did not. As Mayor, Washington doubtless had a great deal of political clout. But he had fought long and hard to win this influence, and in truth his base was always fragile at best. Although he had reached a position of personal strength, he represented a group of people--blacks, Latinos, Asians, gays, progressives--whose position in society continues to be fraught with insecurity. In the face of this fragility, it is impossible not to ask: What power was Nelson attempting to challenge? What did he think he would achieve?

There have been several other incidents which raise questions about the nature of iconoclasm and help clarify the use or misuse of the term in relationship to "Mirth and Girth." For example, in an exaggerated response to Martin Scorcese's "The Last Temptation of Christ," fundamentalists tried to buy up all the prints from Universal before its release. Picket lines, protestations, and even stone-throwing turned the opening night of what might have been a small art-house premiere into a sold-out circus event. Scorcese, like Kazantzakis, from whose novel the story was adapted, was not interested in iconoclasm, although this is what he is accused of. Rather he was concerned with a demystification of the Jesus figure and an intense grappling with his trials and temptations, not as an outsider attacking the figure of Christ, but as a serious Catholic, analyzing him from within. Godard's "Hail Mary," in which the mother of God is presented as a beautiful gas station attendant, also received a good deal of knee-jerk criticism from those who felt Godard's retelling of the story in a contemporary setting was sacrilege. But in both instances these filmmakers were trying to creative rethink the traditional narrative, to add a modern, human dimension to it.

 An episode in Mexico City in 1988 also has certain similarities to the painting incident. At the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City, Roland de la Rosa, a Mexican artist, displayed a montage which superimposed the face and bare breasts of Marilyn Monroe over the revered image of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, who is also known as the "National Mother," the "Mestiza Virgin," "la Guadalupana." In doing so, de la Rosa set off four months of controversy about the limits of artistic freedom. Enraged civic groups stormed the museum, demanding the artist's home address so they could "lynch him." De la Rosa became persona non grata and the museum's director was forced to resign.

In these instances Scorcese, Godard and de la Rosa were all working from personal visions which attempted to intersect with the collective imagination. But this effort is often misunderstood. In a July 1988 Time Magazine interview about "The Last Temptation of Christ," Father Morris, a Catholic priest said: "You can't be working out your private problems to the degree that it causes people to riot in the streets."(10) The Scorcese film almost caused such a response; De la Rosa's images actually did. But the concerns of these artists cannot be reduced to a discussion of their "private problems." De la Rosa, for example, was attempting to mirror the hypocrisy of Mexican culture in which pictures of la Guadalupana can be found on the walls of gas stations, side by side with glossy nudes of Marilyn Monroe and other sexual icons. Images cross over both in the imagination and in reality to become cultural oxymorons. In the confusion, mother/saint/Virgin/whore are often conflated. It is difficult to fathom what all this hysteria has been about, when in fact nothing can really damage the image of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, Mary or Jesus. Their power in the collective conscious and unconscious is for many sacred and unshakable.

Harold Washington did not live long enough, nor had he accrued enough power, to have solidified one consistent image for people to remember him by. The black community really did believe Nelson's portrait to be slanderous and potentially damaging to his memory. And because there was no clear sense of purpose behind the painting it seemed that much more frivolous and degrading. Needless to say, Nelson is neither Scorcese nor Godard. His immature efforts were closer to lampooning than anything else. The painting therefore seems provocative only for provocation's sake.


"It's not a matter of right and wrong. It's freedom of expression."

-School of the Art Institute, Student Body Treasurer

It is one thing to defend an artist's right to produce any work he or she desires; it is quite different actually to approve of the subject matter of this work, or feel one must remain silent about the content even if it is offensive. Artists have a right to be critical of other artists who engage with volatile situations for no reason other than their own narcissism.

A number of years ago there was an incident in New York in which an artist displayed abstract black and white paintings which he called "The Nigger Paintings." Even though there was no discernible racist image in these paintings, the title of the exhibit was enough to enrage members of the art community. Protesters marching in front of Artist's Space questioned the exhibiting artist's judgment in choosing a racist title for his work. Many artists engaged in these demonstrations. No one involved was advocating censorship, but there was a push to force the artist to rethink his intention. It is not contradictory to defend to the death the artist's right to make whatever work he or she sees fit, while at the same time encouraging the artist to be aware of the social implications of that work. If the time comes to do battle in its defense, there should be the sense that the work itself is worthy of this effort.

 The art world thrives on freedom of expression and an attitude of "live and let live." Artists rarely ask each other to be accountable to any form of "good taste" or political correctness, because they themselves do not want to be asked to answer for their own work in this way. The permissiveness of this work, from students with pink hair and rings in their nose, to work which is radical and innovative in form, is not easily understandable to the world outside.

Many artists themselves are often isolated from the larger human community and the issues which affect people's daily lives. Yet they like to think of their creations and their place in the order of things as progressive. They will defend, on principle, any painting, sculpture, or film deemed too radical, avant-garde, or innovative in form or content for the prevailing consciousness to readily digest. This is understandable and essential to the maintenance of artistic freedom. But in the case of "the painting," this a priori acceptance becomes problematic. The work under attack in this instance is in no way progressive; it is rather politically reactionary, homophobic, tasteless, and misguided. Yet, white middle class artists, in particular, have not seen fit to analyze the content of this painting or to speak out against it. Perhaps they fear that were they truly critical of Nelson, they might sound too much like the aldermen. Perhaps they are more comfortable hiding behind the assumed unconditional right of any artist to iconoclasm, satire, and buffoonery. Or perhaps they find it unnerving to even consider that this work could be analogous to the kind of campus racial harassment which occurred at the University of Michigan or the University of Wisconsin. And yet no matter how outrageous students may look, or how radical in form their work might be, they are still capable of producing art whose content is reactionary. Often those who understand innovation in form are not necessarily progressive in their political views, while those capable of radical analyses are often conservative in their acceptance of true innovation in form.

During the early stages of the chaos around "the painting" a colleague said with nostalgic excitement: "This feels just like 1968 demonstrations, position papers, meetings late into the night... " But there was an obvious weakness in this analogy. In 1968 art students, like many other college students, were concerned with issues of racism, sexism, classism. They were involved in articulating progressive social values. But in 1988 what felt like radical politics in its intensity was actually its antithesis. Students were being called reactionary for adopting a stance which the black community, in particular, perceived as ethnocentric and even racist.


"Thinking is, indeed, essentially the negation of that which is immediately before us."


The real barrier to understanding the complexity of this incident is that each side feels it must choose to interpret the problem as fundamentally one of censorship or of racism. In fact one can make a case for either position. But it is only when the issue is seen as simultaneously a question of censorship and of racism that a plan of concrete action leading to resolution can be imagined.

 First, it must be understood that the actions of the Aldermen were in direct violation of First Amendment rights. They are legally indefensible. There is little doubt that the ACLU suit on behalf of David Nelson will be settled in Nelson's favor, in or out of court. As David Polsby, Northwestern University Law professor, said on John Calloway's "Chicago Tonight Show": "I count no fewer than five Illinois statutes, three of them felony statutes, that were violated in this case. I think Aldermen Streeter puts the case exactly. The First Amendment was indeed transcended. There seems to be no argument whatsoever that the First Amendment was trampled underfoot like so much ticker tape by this vigilante action."(11)

 The Aldermen had no legal right to remove the painting. It is protected under the First Amendment as "visual speech." This protection is not contingent on the content of this "speech." The painting could be picketed, protested, discussed in forums to exorcise public criticism, but it could not be forcibly removed. Yet no matter how clearly these legal parameters are set, there are those who still believe that, given the content of the painting, such tactics were justified. Even if Nelson's actions could be seen as analogous to crying fire in a crowded theatre, it would still be the responsibility of those in office to do everything they could to prevent a riot. In this case, these public officials used their official capacity to provoke one.

The aldermen justified their actions by calling upon a "higher moral order" which they felt themselves entrusted to enforce. Streeter and others have insisted that the First Amendment does not necessarily apply to African-Americans because they were not included in the decision-making process when the Constitution was originally drafted. Members of the black community have said that the First Amendment has not protected them from racism, inequality, economic or psychological oppression. Given these feelings, as well as the aldermen's self-prescribed commitment to uphold the image of the late Harold Washington, their actions become somewhat understandable. The Aldermen were torn in their identities and felt they had to choose which loyalty to uphold. This supposed conflict of interests is in itself a consequence of racism.

 Nonetheless, these leaders seriously violated their status as public officials. As long as the aldermen continue to focus on the racial slur inflicted by the painting, they needn't challenge their own actions or recognize their responsibility as elected officials to uphold the law. They also do not have to question the danger to civil liberties implicit in their attitude.

In retrospect, it becomes clear why Harold Washington was such a significant political presence: He was above this type of conflict. He served as a leader of the black community and as a leader of all Chicago. The multicultural coalition which helped put him in office empowered him to bridge these worlds and protected his encompassing perspective. Although the Aldermen's actions were undoubtedly illegal, the motivations for these actions must be understood.

 Second, like the Aldermen, many white artists have also been guilty of using this incident to reinforce their personal fears. They have focused on censorship, a crucial issue, but they have polarized the problem until it has become a white/black conflict, forcing black, Latino, Asian, and Native American Indian artists in the city to choose between the importance of the issue of censorship and the concomitant issue of racism. These white artists have been unable to move intellectually and emotionally beyond their disbelief that anyone would dare intrude on the sanctity of the School and make demands on artists' work. To the art world, understandably, the act of forcibly removing and consequently damaging a painting is frightening. Such actions, if allowed to continue, would ultimately result in a situation in which work of any nature, except the most neutral, would be subject to review.

At the same time that the tendencies which led to actions of the Aldermen must be actively opposed, it should be recognized that the painting was extremely provocative at a time when racial tensions in the city were at an all-time high. In this sense, the painting was an extremely irresponsible act. As long as the art world continues to focus solely on the civil liberties issue, it avoids the vital question of the responsibility of the artist to the community in which he or she lives. But why does the predominantly white middle-class art world choose to avoid this question of responsibility to a larger community outside its own parameters?


"To be modern is to know that which is not possible any more."

-Roland Barthes

There is a fundamental split between the internal world of the artist and the greater world outside--which makes the art world's rare encounters with the political arena that much more difficult. One strain of this problem can be linked to the nineteenth century myth of the "romantic artist." Locked in an isolated consciousness, alienated from society, the romantic resolved to make the inner self known. Initially romanticism was progressive, liberating, representing the struggle to break with the past and to attain an ideal embodiment of a subjective emotional truth. It glorified and idealized the autonomy of the self. But a century later this tendency now manifests itself as a hopeless break between the artist and the body politic. This separation has fostered anxiety, paranoia and work which has become that much more cut off from its socio-political environment. Artists increasingly locate themselves, not within a general historical context, but within a privileged dialogue with their own history. Their art refers to art which came before, and the art world has become increasingly hermetic, its discourse incomprehensible to those outside its closed system.

 In the post-modern era the polarizations have become even more extreme. The artist often seems to no longer have an intelligible purpose within the culture, except to articulate the final stages of its decline. There is little dialogue with the outside, at times no longer even a conflicting tension with the inner self to spur on the dialectic. Many artists have become comfortably uncomfortable in their alienation from the larger society, and their work mirrors this resignation, blending into the existent landscape without anxiety. One cannot tell whether a work is commenting on its own, furthering that exploitation, or both. There is at times no frame of reference within which to place the image, unless one is well-versed in all that is now, or once was, fashionable. The signifier has split from the signified. Meaning, which is no longer derived from a discernible context, seems hopelessly set adrift. The "aura" which Benjamin refers to as the spirituality of a work, is now too often only an afterglow of trendiness, money, and success.(12)

 Young artists are often well aware of the depleted condition of the art world, but are unable to imagine how they might connect with a larger context. Not only are they isolated in the physical and philosophical milieu in which they exist, but they also suffer agoraphobia, fear of stepping outside this world. Often more at ease with work that stays away from the contradictions of their time than with work that engages such contradictions, they choose to make art which concerns itself primarily with formalist issues. This is unfortunately also the type of work that the art world often rewards. Ideally, as Robert Storr has written: "An artist is measured, in the first instance by the difficulty of the problem {he/she} chooses to confront."(13) But this is unfortunately rarely the case any longer. Work is often measured instead by how successful it is, or might become, in New York--how salable and collectable. When work does take a political or social stance and does reflect the temper of the times, it is either ignored or, when accepted, then absorbed--transformed into a commodity, its power diluted.

 Art schools must struggle to remain aloof from these circumstances and to uphold the integrity of the creative process. They have a great responsibility to their young artists, to create some island, some refuge, not isolated from the world, but from the art scene--a place where real art issues are still confronted. But however much a school may try to exist outside the art world framework, students often leave feeling that what is truly important is that they make a name for themselves. It is not always clear how that name should be acquired. Both excellence and notoriety are too often seen as interchangeable paths to this same desired end. David Nelson is an example of a student seemingly unable to make these necessary distinctions.

 An art school is a mini-society, a buffer between the art world and the wider culture, a place where young artists are socialized into their chosen identities. If it is successful, students learn how to think visually as well as how to execute ideas with the greatest degree of professional expertise. Schools of art should also try to train their students to think clearly, to ask themselves if their work is communicating their intention. And faculty must try to teach students to be socially responsible for their intentions. Faculty at times see work which is racist, sexist, pornographic, unnecessarily violent, exploitative, and anti-semitic. It is in the spirit of many art schools to carefully challenge these efforts, never to tell the students what do, but to try to make them take some responsibility for what they may be doing unconsciously or carelessly. It is important for student artists to evaluate how much of the effect achieved in a work is actually intended and how much is simply the result of lack of control on their part.

 President Tony Jones has called the School of the Art Institute a "laboratory." It is a good analogy. In this environment, some experiments are successful and others fail miserably. But all are tested. Because of the nature of visual work, success or failure must take place in a public forum. On May 11, black faculty, students, and staff, in particular, were outraged by Nelson's painting. Had the outside world left the School to its own processes it would have challenged this work and opened it to in-house discussion. But there was no time for this private process. The painting was immediately transformed into a public issue.

Administrators of the school did finally meet with David Nelson, right in the middle of the early chaos around the painting, to discuss whether or not the response to his work was what he had intended. They hoped Nelson would recognize that the painting had gone way beyond any repercussions he might have imagined or desired, and was now actually endangering people's welfare. They hoped he would consider removing it, not because he didn't have a right to display it, but because as the artist, he had the right to control its effect. From this conversation it was clear that Nelson was unnerved, and worried about his own safety. But he knew that had he removed the piece himself he would have looked like a coward to many of his peers. He could not do it. But in fact, had he the courage and wisdom to take hold of the painting's effect, he would have been the sanest person in the building at that moment.

 Were the art world more rigorous and more willing to hold its own to a measure of social responsibility, were it more racially and ethnically diverse, Nelson might have understood the sociopolitical situation in Chicago. He might have cared enough to think twice about his relationship to it as an artmaker. The community around him might have spurred his conscience. Had the other non-minority students understood the implications of Nelson's actions in its larger context, they might not have defended him so unequivocally. Although remaining protective to Nelson's First Amendment rights, they too might have been upset at the subject of the painting and critical of Nelson's obliviousness to the historical moment. Had all these possibilities become actualities, Nelson himself might have realized what a provocative act it would be to display such a work. He might have questioned his own motivation early on, recognizing that individuality is determined, not in "isolated particularity," but in relationship to one's membership within the human community and within history.(14) Had he thought it valuable to take these considerations into account at that moment, he might have understood that his place within the larger collective was ultimately more important than either self-expression or self-aggrandizement. But Nelson, like many others, was incapable of this level of thinking. And, like many other student-artists, he believed there was no value higher than self-expression.


"The negativity everything possesses... is a state of privation that forces the subject to seek remedy, as such it has a positive character."

-Herbert Marcuse

Consciousness and dialectical thinking can only evolve in an environment willing to tackle complexity head on. They are best cultivated where multicultural and global issues hit up against the prevailing ideology, forcing resolution. But this ideal situation does not exist within the art world at present. Because it is not a truly multicultural society it has become inbred and philosophically impoverished. Until the demographics of the art world are transformed, instances of faulty thinking, like the painting of "Mirth and Girth," will continue, although perhaps not on such a grand scale.

The situation of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a primarily progressive institution, is a good example of the complexity of this problem. Like many art schools, it receives some state and city funding and is built on Park District land. The School sits in the middle of a city which is racially and ethnically mixed with blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans accounting for 57% of the population. The School's minority population is, at 18%, better than most learning institutions of comparable size, cost, and status. And there have been some serious attempts to increase numbers of minority students, faculty, and staff over the past years, but the effect has been less than dramatic.

The relatively small minority representation at all levels of the School is not the result of bad faith or racist intentions on the part of the institution; rather, it is in part due to harsh economic and social realities. Fundamentally, it is very difficult to recruit minority applicants to a private art school. Even when the high tuition can be subsidized, as is often the case, students still need to work to pay for food, clothing, shelter, and supplies. And because they cannot work 40 hours a week and attend school at the same time, they become dependent on student loans. After four years at the B.F.A. level, or after six, when the B.F.A. and M.F.A. are combined, students are usually in serious debt. And this situation has become much worse under Reagan. The intention of the Reagan administration to reduce many student-aid programs and its efforts to shift more of the burden of payment to students and their families has seriously affected low-income students and hit minority students especially hard.(15) At graduation, a student must begin to pay back these loans. But unlike doctors or lawyers, artists have no guaranteed high-paying job possibilities awaiting them. There is no secure career path to follow with clear professional rewards at the other end. This is perhaps the most discouraging reality facing minority candidates. A private institution cannot alone completely repair the damage caused by a federal policy which makes it almost impossible for minorities to attend college at all.

It is even more outrageous to try to compensate for the cut-backs in education which have reduced the mandatory sixty minutes of music and art per week to zero in many school curricula. There simply is not enough money to hire the necessary experts in these areas. The result is that students are not exposed to the visual arts at an early level and are therefore unable to recognize their own inclination to this vocation. If they do want to attend art school, they are then at a disadvantage when they must compete for admission or struggle to keep up with those who have already had some training in these areas.

Art schools can try to compensate for these inequities with outreach programs but these problems have become too large to be solved with small, inadequately funded projects. There needs to be an even greater commitment to these efforts for them to be at all effective. If serious changes do not happen at the educational level there will continue to be a dearth of minority faculty in the visual arts educational system. This lack will continue to mirror itself in the general art world profile.

For these and other reasons, the School of the Art Institute has often seemed unreachable and "other." There is no doubt that the School must work to change this perception of elitism through concrete efforts. But it operates at a disadvantage in this dynamic because it is often confused with its corporate partner, The Art Institute of Chicago, a world-renowned museum, which like many major museums, has mounted very few exhibitions which reflect the ethnic and racial composition of the city in which it lives. As a result, James A. Brame, President of the Illinois Alliance of Black Student Organizations, has called the museum "a closed bastion of white male Western cultural supremacy."(16) The efforts the museum has made to transform this image have simply not been sufficient.

Had the museum and the school established stronger ties with the community sooner, these feelings might not exist and this event might not have been played out as divisively as it was. There would have been built-in avenues of trust and negotiation between the Art Institute Corporation and the community, which could have been employed to de-escalate the event. The anger unleashed by the aldermen was a glimpse of the return of the repressed. It had been under the surface for some time. It is therefore not in the least surprising that the school and the museum apologized for "the painting" more than many thought necessary. This conciliatory response may well have been motivated by cumulative guilt for not having bridged these polarizations earlier.

 There is no doubt that this incident has further alienated the school, the museum, and the predominantly white art world from the city at large. It has exacerbated the already existent paranoia of many artists and has increased their alienation. And it is not yet over. In spite of community organizers who try to encourage open debate on the issues involved, and "unity" efforts to create multicultural events, groups predominantly white or predominantly black do continue to meet, separately, to discuss the incident. But most people involved still seem unable to exorcise their own particular anger. Both sides remain myopic, retelling the narrative in terms of "us" and "them," unaware of the narrowness of their focus, unwilling to recognize their contribution to escalating racial tension. As long as these groups are comfortable in their moral superiority, they do nothing to heal an already polarized Chicago, a city which "needs no more excuses to hate."(17)

There has been unending confusion as to the meaning of events surrounding the painting episode and a deep dissension locally and nationally as to the proper response to these events. But there has been consensus among many groups that the school must seize this opportunity to make some serious leaps in reaching its affirmative action goals. An internal and external task force are at present working to build a more racially integrated art environment that attempts to reflect the demographics of the city and is more integrally connected to it. If the school can succeed in increasing the minority population, improving its overall sensitivity to racial issues, as well as opening itself philosophically to include the various multicultural perspectives these efforts will bring, it may truly be one of the only art schools in the country actively committed to such values.

 One can hope that these gestures will encourage a national movement committed to creating a more culturally diverse art-educational environment. Over time, such efforts will invariably affect the larger art world, which is dependent on these institutions to train the next generation of artists. If the art world does become more accessible, artists from various ethnic and racial groups will gain greater access to it. Such artists, who often retain ties to their communities as well as commitment to their own ethnic history, can help bridge the unnatural split between the art world and the larger sociopolitical framework. Their collective vision, and the imagery they create, may also help develop a less individualistic, less narcissistic sense of the place of the artist in society. However, such optimistic goals can only really be achieved on a larger scale, along with a transformation of economic and political conditions in this country.

As the immediate impact of the painting incident recedes, perhaps those involved will discover that the event actually has served to create a rupture in the continuity, dramatic enough to expose hidden contradictions and decisive enough to force an irrevocable awareness of the need for synthesis and change.

1. Chicago Sun-Times, (14 May 1988); Chicago Defender, (14 May 1988); Chicago Tribune, (15 May 1988).

 2. From "Draft Statement" written by Clarence Wilson, President of Lawyers for the Creative Arts.

 3. Chicago Sun-Times (15 May 1988).

 4. Chicago Sun-Times, (14 May 1988) p.4.

 5. Salim Muwakkil, "Harold Washington's Fractured Legacy," IN THESE TIMES, (25 May-7 June 1988).

 6. Chicago Tribune (15 May 1988).

 7. The Washington Post (13 May 1988).

 8. Bill Stamets, "Theater of Power, Theater of the Absurd," The New Art Examiner (Summer, 1988), p.30.

 9. Michael Brenson, Art View: "A Savage Painting Raises Troubling Questions," New York Times (29 May 1988), p.29.

 10.Time Magazine, (15 August 1988).

 11. Chicago Sun-Times (22 May 1988)

 12. This is a reference to Walter Benjamin's best-known essay "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," to be found in ILLUMINATIONS.

 13. Robert Storr, "Nancy Spero: Central Issues-Peripheral Visions" in NANCY SPERO: WORKS SINCE 1950 (Syracuse: Everson Museum of Art, 1987).

 14. Herbert Marcuse, "Science of Logic," from REASON AND REVOLUTION.

 15. Reginald Wilson and Manuel J. Justiz, "Minorities in Higher Education: Confronting a Time Bomb," Educational Record, (Fall 1987-Winter 1988): p.11.

 15. Chicago Sun-Times, (26 May 1988).

 26. Chicago Tribune, Editorial, (13 May 1988).

 This article has been reprinted with permission from ART IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST, edited with an introduction by Arlene Raven, UMI Research Press, Ann Arbor, MI 1989. The title of Becker's article is a quote from Charles L. Mee, Jr., from a piece about the playwright by Eileen Blumenthal, "Blitzed Out Lovers Tell a Tale for our Time," (New York Tmes, July 3, 1988).

Publication Table of Contents

FileRoom Search | Table of Contents | Category Homepage | NCAC