Censorship guts New Haven art exhibition

An upcoming exhibition at The John Slade Ely House for Contemporary Art in New Haven, organized by the Orchard Street Shul Cultural Heritage Artists Project, is overshadowed by the organizers’ decision to censor one of the artworks in the show.

After numerous requests that Richard Kamler, one of the participating artists, modify parts of his installation, and a month before the opening of the show, the organizers rejected his work for fear some members of the community may be offended.

Richard Kamler’s work, “right around the corner” consists of an installation and a performative component, a Community Conversation. The art work refers to the changing environment of the Orchard Street Shul and to the growth of a Muslim community in the neighborhood. The installation consists of a table covered by a paper tablecloth, made from interwoven fragments of pages from the Torah and the Koran, upon which the books themselves, placed in a copper bowl, are resting. Their pages are interwoven as well. The Community Conversation was to consist of conversations involving leaders of both communities. The artist has a 30-year history of creating similar projects and showing them internationally.

The organizers demanded the removal or modification of the tablecloth, even after being repeatedly assured that no actual books were cut, that the tablecloths consisted of photocopies of fragments, and that religious scholars agreed that the installation did not violate any religious taboo. Their concern was that the piece “might offend somebody.”

Artwork involving religion often upsets sensibilities no matter how respectful it may be. Artists we now think of as devout Catholics, for instance, were severely punished by the church hierarchy for expressing views that ran counter to orthodox teachings. Most recently, Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary, was seen as “offensive” to Catholics in spite of the fact that Ofili is a practicing Catholic himself.

Art is by its very nature open to multiple interpretations, and therefore even the most seemingly innocuous material may generate controversy. If the Orchard Street Shul Cultural Heritage Artists Project committee wanted to reduce the possibility of disagreement and ambiguity, perhaps it should have simply organized a show of archival photographs rather than an art exhibition.

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3 Responses to Censorship guts New Haven art exhibition

  1. The quote noted by the National Coalition Against Censorship that “the piece might offend somebody” is not attributable to the organizers of the Cultural Heritage Artists Project. No one from this group made this statement.

    The Orchard Street Shul is an orthodox religious community and the guidelines for the exhibition required that the works in the exhibition be respectful of the synagogue. The leaders of the Orchard Street Shul did not find the cutting of the Torah and the Koran to be respectful.

    Richard Kamler did not provide evidence that he sought out leaders or religious advisors of the Orchard Street Shul (Synagogue) or of the Masjid Al-Islam (Mosque) concerning the religious laws governing the cutting up of the Torah and Koran.

    In his initial proposal Mr. Kamler stated that he was cutting up books of the Torah and Koran, and he did not provide assurances that “that no actual books were cut.”

    As a result, Mr. Kamler failed to meet the criteria for the exhibition.

  2. Nan Rubin says:

    Shame on you! I found your press release referring to the non-showing of Kamler’s piece as “gutting the exhibition” to be sensationalized and dishonest. And it was appalling for you to suggest reducing such a group effort to “a show of archival photographs rather than an art exhibition.” I can appreciate that NCAC might feel the need to exaggerate, but you have just insulted more than three dozen artists who are participating in this venture by discounting their work.

    The guidelines for the exhibit were clear from the beginning, and a committee of artists themselves all agreed that Kamler’s piece was not acceptable for the exhibit. Moreover, the piece was rejected well before the show was put together, and was never central to the display, which can hardly be described as “gutting.”

    Some things are in, and some are out. This is not censorship –. it is ‘editorial judgment’, surely a dynamic every artist and curator must be familiar with. If the artist had genuinely tried to create an opportunity for Jewish-Muslim dialogue in New Haven, which was encouraged, the outcome would have been very different. But it seems clear that wasn’t his intent, and because of the particular nature of this work, I suspect he knew all along it would be especially provocative.

    Personally, I think all religious objects and symbols are fair game for artists, and that censorship of art deserves condemnation. But this incident doesn’t measure up. Kamler’s work should be brought to another venue, where it would certainly raise all these issues and invite many more.

    But the charge of censorship here is nonsense. There is no ‘free speech right’ to display work in a private venue where it isn’t welcome. An artist can create whatever sandcastle he wants, but he has to find a sandbox to build it in. These artists respectfully said their sandbox wasn’t available. Free speech works both ways.

  3. That Richard Kamler’s piece was rejected because of the possibility that some members of the community associated with the Synagogue might be offended, was expressed directly to NCAC by both Cynthia Rubin (see comment above) and another member of the organizing committee. It was also something the organizers shared with the press: Paul Bass of the New Haven Independent writes “Organizers of the exhibit said they rejected the piece not out of censorship, but because of its potential to offend people.” It is somewhat disingenuous to deny the facts, given this and other statements to the press.

    Whether suppressing something that may offend is censorship or not is easily established by opening a dictionary: the simple definition of “to censor” is “to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable.”

    The organizers of the show can, of course, choose to censor – they have no legal obligations to support free speech. However, as organizers of an art show they have a moral obligation to respect artistic freedom. It is the lack of respect for artistic freedom that is more likely to “insult” the participating artists – as well as any other supporters of the arts – than NCAC’s raising the alarm on censorship.

    We know that our principled defense of free speech does not make us popular with everybody – but it is our deep conviction that freedom of expression is indispensable to a democratic society and a thriving cultural sphere. Hence we continue our work.

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