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Is Mural of Actresses Face Too Offensive?

Words:

Edd Norval
December 19, 2018

A portrait of Ava Gardner's profile imposed over palm-trees and a geometric design by artist Beau Stanton has been likened to the Rising Sun flag of Imperial Japan and has been asked to be removed for its hateful connotations. That's right. Some lines in an art deco style mural have made people feel so uncomfortable that it's been asked to be removed.

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The debate continues. Sensitive v Censorship. Both have a perfectly solid basis upon which people can form their opinions. One must be aware of unnecessarily offending people. No one likes to be hurt or feel ostracised. Conversely, who decides what should be censored. Outright hate-speech. Yes, of course, don't be stupid.


Art, though, is the vanguard of the exploration of ideas. Its links to advancing science, philosophy and politics is inextricable. If we start to limit what can be produced artistically, won't it start to limit what we think and say? Conformity, as history would inform us, is a slippery slope to evil. Dissident voices must be heard and must be allowed out in the open. It's crucial that we can make mistakes and not worry about being charged with a crime.


It's tricky stuff. Always has been. Keeping a cool head and being realistic in a time when rational thought is as rare as an honest politician is absolutely imperative. So, this mural in Los Angeles (the epicentre of this debate, arguably), why is it being deemed as offensive as a swastika? Because people are seeing links where there are none.

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The offensive flag in question.

The aforementioned examples of dissident art don't even come into this one. It's a mural with one of the most commonly repeated patterns in art as its background. Art is rife with symbols, most intentional, but some not. Whether this was meant to cause offence or not (it wasn't) is being hastily overlooked. The fact is, some people are offended and because of that, everyone that isn't offended must suffer one less piece of perfectly 'normal' art as a result. Seem fair?


Decorating the facade of the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in LA's Koreatown, the fanning effect of the background is reminiscent of a flag which understandably brings back bad memories for the people of Korea. The rays though, in colour and shape, represent a sunburst sky, glowing from behind the actresses' face evoking the lively days now passed of the Cocoanut Nightclub that was once nearby.


A letter from the Wilshire Community Coalition was sent to the Los Angeles Unified School District to request it was taken down. A statement on their website reads:


"This work is extremely offensive and threatening to many survivors, descendants and community stakeholders who stand in absolute opposition of the Japanese Imperialism, Racism, ethnic hatred and crimes against humanity committed by the military aggression during the World War II"

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There's a difficult word in here. 'Threatening'. Not challenging or provocative, but a threat. By definition, a threat is something that can either cause damage or danger (an inanimate mural cannot do either) or more nefariously 'a statement of an intention to inflict pain, injury, damage, or other hostile action on someone in retribution for something done or not done.'


Beyond being a stretch, that's a strong accusation to make against an artist. This piece stands alongside another mural by Shepard Fairey, who was less impressed by the debacle. He told the Los Angeles Times "Yeah, these things happened and they’re part of a terrible history, but this mural has nothing to do with that... What he has in his mural is nothing close to the battle flag. It’s not the same color scheme. It’s not the same focal element. It’s stupid to me. I thought that cooler heads would prevail because this is absurd."


Other artists and critics have come out in support of keeping the mural, whereas others agree that it is troubling. A decision was made that it will soon be painted over. Christopher Knight of the same paper duly noted that "An innocent artist is being smeared as a promoter of hate speech." Asserting that the art isn't the scandal, but the censorship. By limiting what can be artistically portrayed sets a dangerous precedent for what will be (or not be) produced in the future - largely out of fear of repercussion.

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Shepard Fairey's statement.

One of Robert F. Kennedy's sons Maxwell commented that whilst some symbols are universally understood as offensive and should thus be avoided, "rays of light are synonymous in this country with hope.” As the intention, colour, shape and context all point to the sun, shouldn't that interpretation be accepted? If everything is to now be shaped by public pressure, does that mean art can't challenge and therefore act only as an aesthetic outlet?


Possibly seeing the error of their ways, the school district announced that plans to destroy the mural have been put on hold, at least for now.


The episode has raised many interesting issues. If this is public art, what public is it serving? How much value do we put on past trauma? To how many people must an artwork 'traumatise' for it to be considered offensive? These questions, and many more, are part of an ongoing debate that has reached fever-pitch recently. Depending on your interpretation of art, your answer will vary. But if it is about freedom of expression, imposing limits is bad. There are textbooks to prove the consequences of such actions.


The future of censorship will continue to be a mainstay of intellectual and artistic debate for some time to come. One of the key aspects is discourse. Rather than interviews and emails, a public discussion may be the way forward. Let's hope the outcome pleases the majority. For now, keep on creating, don't be a dick and don't be scared to challenge ideas. We might not be allowed such a luxury for much longer.

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