From the Archives
The archival material we have of UMVA newsletters and various ephemera is not very organized. We have talked about collating everything by year, month, and even making sub categories. But… it always seems that something more important comes up, which usually has to do with present day challenges and after all, the dogs need some exercise!
Those old newsletters hold lots of history, a time capsule as it were, not merely about the UMVA, but also about the State of Maine and on a larger scale, America in general. In 1990, thirty long years ago, artists across America were concerned with censorship. I touched on this subject awhile back; it has cropped up yet again, but in a more disturbing light.
1990 America was going through a recession and as usual the arts sector got the full brunt of it. If a recession weren’t bad enough the Washington Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) did a full frontal assault on the National Endowment for the Arts. Helms was particularly outraged by the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe (and others), some of which depicted sado-masochistic scenes. The outrage stemmed from the fact that exhibitions of this kind were funded in part (if not wholly) by the NEA. The Senate and Congress alike began trolling through NEA grant funding, looking for trouble; they found plenty. Censorship became a personal issue among politicians, who decided filth and pornography were everywhere and the arts were capitalizing on it!
In March of 1990, Carlo Pittore (UMVA founder) exhibited his portraits of Abraham Lincoln at Gallery 127 in Portland, Maine. In some ways, it was ironic he chose Lincoln as a subject, considering the political climate at the time. After all, Abraham Lincoln was America’s great emancipator. Pittore had worked on these paintings since the late 1980’s for two years, trying to capture what he considered an honest likeness of Abe, or as he said in an interview (Maine Sunday Telegram, March 4, 1990), “the Lincoln penny and the Lincoln $5 bills have embarrassingly little resemblance to the great man.” At the same time Pittore’s work was being exhibited, censorship was big news.
In the March 1990 (special issue) of the UMVA newsletter, Pittore writes: “The Union of Maine Visual Artists and the Maine Writers’ and Publishers’ Alliance urge Congress to reauthorize the NEA without any restrictions on artistic content, to maintain the peer review system of awarding grants, and to increase funding for the Endowment.” At the same time, Union President David Brooks believed artists had become energized by the censorship issue and made this comment in the Maine Sunday Telegram on December 30, 1990: “[i]t drew a lot of artists out of their little worlds and made them face the problems and work together.” And so we did, but to what effect? The NEA survived the onslaught. Politicians went back to counting beans and the artists moved on. But now, 30 years later a new form of censorship is rearing its ugly head.
Fast forward to Friday, February 21, 2020 and an editorial in The London Times, titled “Monoculture Wars”: “Britain’s arts and cultural sectors ought to be champions of free speech, yet a survey shows they have fallen victim to worrying self-censorship.” The article goes on to say that institutions, bureaucracies and arts organizations have developed a narrow world view. This world view has been born out of fear of offending individual groups that identify themselves as distinct culturally, sexually or religiously. As a result, the very institutions that gave voice to arts and education, are beginning to gag them.
Today arts organizations and the bureaucrats working within the system govern what we see in museums and arts centers. It is not in their best interest to present challenging opinions, for fear of offending even a small sector of the populace. As a result, what is exhibited in most major cultural institutions is fast becoming a form of benign contemporary work, leaving little in the way of public discourse. Yes, there are Picassos and Warhols on view, but where are the artists who want to express strong opinions on race, religion, or sexuality? Those institutions that do show them know one thing… those artists better be cut from the same cloth as what they depict.
The Fall 2019 issue of the UMVA quarterly, used the theme of appropriation. Appropriation in the cultural perspective has recently become a form of censorship. Artists who create material based on socio/political themes must now walk a tightrope. Museums and independent galleries alike are cautious as to what might offend. For example, in 2015 at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, ‘Kimono Wednesday’, a simple event allowing anyone to try on a kimono like the one used in Monet’s painting, was cancelled because it offended Boston’s Japanese community.
At the 2016 Whitney Biennial, a painting by Dana Schutz (white artist), depicting the open casket of slain 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was mob-lynched in 1959, created a firestorm among black activists, to such an extent that the British artist Hannah Black demanded the work be destroyed!
In 2017 at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Sam Durant (white artist) created a large scaffold in honor of 38 Dakota Indians executed in 1862. The work was also meant as a statement on capital punishment. The Dakota Tribe demanded its removal. After opening a dialogue with the Tribe, the Museum passed it onto the Dakota, where it was dismantled and ceremoniously buried.
These events only scratch the surface of what has become a form of cultural censorship. There appears to be no easy answer, no logical solutions. How can we as artists view the suffering of mankind and respond to it without causing offense? Or have we become the very censors we fought against in the1990s?
Today there is a trend to define ourselves in narrow terms. Many of us see ourselves ethnically or sexually specific, and our religions have taken on a greater identity to the exclusion of everything else. Our world view should not be shaped or governed by outside forces. This will only stifle creativity. Artists should speak from individually broad perspectives, the macro of all things. The bigger the picture we create, the broader the world looks.
Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves.
From the Times Record of Brunswick, Maine (Thursday, December 3, 1992): “Arts and Entertainment: UMVA opens its first gallery: The new gallery is located in a former Masonic Hall,which has been renovated into a gallery space upstairs and down. ICON is the upstairs neighbor.”
It was Duane Paluska who after negotiations with UMVA President Ruthann Harrison, generously allowed the Union to create exhibition space at his ICON Gallery, in Brunswick, Maine. The Union’s first exhibition was a non-curated open. Subsequently the UMVA held three more exhibitions at ICON.
So it is with gratitude that we honor the work and commitment of Duane Paluska who passed away on January 28, 2020. He was an artist who supported other artists by giving them voice.