Freedom of expression: the SFAI controversy

Last week, the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) suspended, and then ultimately cancelled a controversial exhibition by artist Adel Abdessemed. The show, entitled, “Don’t Trust Me” included video of animals being slaughtered with a sledgehammer. The artist claims that the images are a social critique about food production and the contrast between the industrial. In a statement about the exhibition, SFAI President Chris Bratton explained, “Abdessemed participated in an already existing circuit of food production in a rural community in Mexico. The animals were raised for food, purchased and professionally slaughtered. In fact, the central point of the controversy is that Abdessemed, an artist, entered this exchange, filmed it, and exhibited it. “

Animal rights groups, including PETA and the SPCA, argue that the images are shock art and snuff film. One of the groups’ central arguments for the closing of the exhibition is that it is partially funded by taxpayers. Indeed, SFAI receives about $80,000 in hotel taxes each year that helps fund its public exhibitions and visiting artist lecture series. In a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle, Jan McHugh-Smith, director of the San Francisco SPCA said, “The San Francisco Art Institute used poor judgment in supporting ‘shock art’ in San Francisco. To take this type of brutality against animals, call it art and use tax money to support it is deplorable.”

I did not see the exhibition at SFAI, so I can’t comment on whether it’s ‘shock art’ or has artistic merit or glorifies animal abuse. (I am inclined to think, however, particularly after the recent Westland/ Hallmark slaughterhouse scandal that spawned a massive beef recall, a slaughterhouse film could only further animal rights and would in all likelihood not, as Eliot Katz of In Defense of Animals contended, “send a terrible message to Art Institute students that it’s OK to go out and do similar things.”) That said, it’s dangerous to argue that a controversial exhibition should be shut down because it’s partially, or even entirely, funded by taxpayers. Remember that Giuliani tried to do this from the other side of the political spectrum in 1999, threatening to shut down “Sensation”, a show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art that included work critical of the Catholic Church.

Throughout history, from the early depictions of the crucifix in the twelfth century to Goya’s Los Capricios to Degas’ Ballerinas to Picasso’s Guernica, art has challenged authority, societal norms, and accepted standards of decency. This is part of the role of art and the artist; art should engage the viewer; it should provoke thought. Sometimes the artist asks us to think about perspective or color or the nature of painting, and sometimes he asks us to contemplate more difficult subjects: death, the inconsistencies of certain organizations or religions, the cost of war. When we ask that public funds be rescinded for artistic statements that are offensive to some group or critical of some aspect of contemporary society, we are asking the government to fringe upon the artists’ First Amendment rights.

There are those that argue that rescinding funding for these offensive/ critical/ challenging works is not the same as saying that they can’t be made or shown; they simply shouldn’t be made with government funding, or shown in institutions that receive taxpayers’ dollars. This isn’t censorship, they say. Yet, if we do this, we cause self-censorship. Artists and arts organizations and institutions will forgo riskier, controversial endeavors in favor of safer, less critical projects that will more readily receive funding. When this happens, we risk cultural atrophy. Indeed, this was/is the fate for many of the communist nations that practiced such censorship, including East Germany, Romania, Poland and Russia.

Furthermore, where would such censorship stop? Public libraries are funded with taxpayers’ money. Should controversial books be removed from them? Several cities are working to provide free and low-cost internet connections to their entire municipality. Should they be allowed, or even obligated, to block connections to offensive imagery, artwork, critical thought, etc, in the way that China blocks YouTube videos and filters the results of search engines like Google and Yahoo. It is, after all, taxpayers who are paying for this dissemination of information. They are not paying to be encountered with offensive material!

Indeed, such a notion sounds ridiculous in the United States, a democratic nation founded, in part, upon principles of free speech. Yet, over the last thirty years, there have been several battles regarding the restriction of arts funding based upon content, beginning with the 1989 amendment to the National Endowment of the Arts funding that NEA required all grant recipients to certify in advance that none of the funds would be used “to promote, disseminate, or produce materials which in the judgment of the NEA … may be considered obscene.” After several court battles, this amendment was struck down as unconstitutional and in 1998 with The NEA v Finley, the law was most recently redefined to state that the government is not required to subsidize controversial or offensive work. It may (but is not obligated to) consider public decency standards when funding work. However, once funds are provided, it may not withdraw them because it disagrees with the message of the work. To do this would be to censorship.

Be wary of encroaching upon another’s civil rights, no matter what your cause is.


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