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Artists Have 'No Stomach' for Censorship

August 29, 1989|LEAH OLLMAN

SAN DIEGO — No government can call artistic excellence into existence. . . . Nor should any government seek to restrict the freedom of the artist to pursue his goals in his own way. Freedom is an essential condition for the artist, and in proportion, if freedom is diminished, so is the prospect of artistic achievement.

--President Lyndon B. Johnson, upon signing the National Endowment for the Arts legislation into law, 1965.

Lyndon Johnson, meet Jesse Helms, devil's advocate to your plan for a politically unencumbered federal arts agency.

The conservative senator from North Carolina called the National Endowment for the Arts to task last month for exercising the very freedom it was mandated to provide. Outraged by the endowment's partial support of two exhibitions that included photographs exploring sexual and religious themes, Helms proposed an amendment to prohibit the NEA from allocating any funds to promote art deemed obscene, indecent or denigrating to any person or class of people. The Senate approved the amendment by voice vote July 26, and the issue--as well as proposed funding cuts of the NEA budget--will be taken up by a House-Senate Conference Committee after Labor Day.

Until now, public debate over Helms' measures has been confined to a verbal battleground, with editorials, petitions and letters flooding the media.

Paintings, photographs and sculptures will no longer play the role of silent victim, however, when the "No Stomach" show opens Friday at downtown's Installation gallery.

"We're hearing a lot about what politicians have to say, but we're the ones making the work," participating artist Elizabeth Sisco said. "I think it's important that we express our voice."

More than 50 artists from San Diego, Tijuana and Los Angeles have been invited to submit work that addresses the issues of censorship and expressive freedom raised by the current NEA controversy. Encouraged to create new works "that test either societal or personal taboos," about half of the artists produced work especially for the show, according to local artist Gary Ghirardi, who organized "No Stomach" with fellow artists Lynn Engstrom and Graciela Ovejero.

Ghirardi sees the show as "a maturity act, an act of solidarity among local artists," but perceptions of the show's purpose vary greatly among those involved.

"It's a surge of adrenaline," artist Cora Boyd said. "It's a way to vent our anger."

Engstrom stressed the educational importance of the show.

"I don't see it as just a protest. I see it as bringing the problem to the public. Many of the works are informative or visual puns on the issues."

One of the show's messages, she said, is that art can deal with difficult issues.

By providing a forum for local artists to deal with sensitive subjects, the show also promises to open a Pandora's box of San Diego's stickiest issues.

Stanley Fried's contribution to "No Stomach" confronts the "latent racism that exists in San Diego." On the opening day of the show, he will file a ballot initiative to name the city's new convention center the "San Diego White People's Convention Center." This, he said, will "fulfill the unwritten, unstated agenda of the Port Commission" in their refusal to name the center after slain civil rights activist the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"I don't expect the initiative to actually pass," Fried said. "The purpose is to engage the community in dialogue."

The promotional flier for the show features a photo collage by Steven Criqui, showing San Diego on a state map, covered by a TV dinner and surrounded by Faberge eggs--a comment on the upcoming Soviet arts festival.

The collaborative work of David Avalos, Louis Hock, Elizabeth Sisco and Deborah Small has always dealt with "questions of censorship, efforts at control by politicians and questions of community values," according to Avalos.

Added Sisco: "As artists in the community who have been censored, it is imperative that we participate in the show. We want to give people something to take away with them for further discussion in private realms about censorship in San Diego, and how the mayor's approach to art-making has made art a matter of political action and control."

The four artists produced a billboard earlier this year that mocked the city's attitude of boosterism and obliquely criticized its exploitation of undocumented workers and its failure to name the new convention center after King.

The billboard was funded by a grant from Installation gallery. Angered by the billboard's message, the City Council this summer voted to deny Installation any Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) funds, bypassing the City Commission for Arts and Culture's recommendation to grant the alternative space $42,000. In part because of community pressure, the City Council restored most of Installation's funds but put restrictions on their use.

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