“A Knock at the Door….”

Defiant Art in New York City

Revolution #017, October 9, 2005, posted at revcom.us

Steven Kurtz, a professor and artist, called 911 when his wife was dying of a sudden heart attack. The paramedic who responded ran across the bacterial cultures that Kurtz uses for his art, which protests genetic engineering--and called the FBI to finger Kurtz as a possible "terrorist." Within hours, the grieving Kurtz, his books, his computer, and his whole life were targets of a Kafka-esque "anti-terrorist" operation (legally justified using the Patriot Act). Even before the authorities allowed his wife’s body to be removed from their house, Kurtz was taken away to spend two days in interrogation. And now, even after the materials were proved to be harmless, he is still awaiting trial on jacked-up charges of mail and wire fraud for buying these materials.

Kurtz is not the only artist caught in the government crosshairs. Since 9/11, there has been a growing awareness of a number of artists who were investigated by police or faced other forms of government interference because their art was considered suspect, subversive, or dangerous.

In June, roughly at the same time as Kurtz was facing the Joint Terrorist Task Force, New York Governor George Pataki announced his "absolute guarantee" that no art would be allowed at the Ground Zero site that could offend "the 9/11 families" (or the rightwing cultural warriors who claim to speak for those families). This fascist declaration demanded an answer. And steps were taken to deliver on using subversive art.

Out of all this came a courageous and powerful exhibit called "A Knock at the Door…."--organized by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, an organization that lost one of its own artists in the 2001 collapse of the two towers. No one missed the exhibit’s timing--from September 8 to October 1. This art show and an accompanying conference collided hard with reactionaries' plans to put their mark on the September 11 anniversary. In your face!

The first thing you saw when you entered the exhibit site at the South Street Seaport Museum was a a pile of garbage--water bottles and pizza boxes. It was actually made out of the garbage that police investigators left at Steven Kurtz’s home. And the installation piece is signed by the "U.S. Joint Terrorism Task Force" (though in reality it was created by the prankster-art crew the Yes Men).

Hanging nearby is a portrait of President Bush’s hateful mug by Chris Savido, which (you can see up close) is made up of tiny monkey faces. It is an irreverent joke. But reading the explanatory text nearby, things suddenly become less light-hearted: the artist reports that a show at the Chelsea Market was closed last year because it included his playful "Bush Monkeys" piece.

Artist Lisa Charde contributed an American flag shaped into a strait jacket--simple and entitled "(un)Patriot(ic) Act."

Jenny Polak built a reception counter with a secret hiding space. It challenges us all to take risks--to shelter the fugitive slave, the illegal immigrant, or the political outlaw from the slave hunter, La Migra, or the fascist police.

Nearby stands an empty display case. In it you find a small sign bearing the logo of Homeland Security that simply says "Artwork removed pending investigation." For a moment the mind flickers: is this an actual act of censorship right in front of us?

The artist who created this piece, Dread Scott, told Revolution:

"This government is waging war for empire and shutting down critical thought and dissent. The other artists in the show and I are not going to tolerate that. We are making works to defy any attempt for them to steal our future and enforce their nightmare on the world."

In the exhibit’s other site, at Cooper Union, Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese show the leaders of the empire--Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice--in raw black-and-white mug shots. There’s no Fox News halo here--on this wall they are seen as the CRIMINALS they are.

The attacks opened up before this exhibit even opened its doors. Would such art even be allowed in post-9/11 America? (Is Lower Manhattan now to be roped off as a stifling patriotic shrine, and denied to all the shocking, cross-pollinating artistic ferment that have long bubbled through its twisted streets?)

The New York Daily News (Sept. 2) charged that this art exhibit was insulting to the memory of 9/11, and simply "inappropriate." The News added in their slippery way:

"This is not a demand to cancel the exhibit. Artistic freedom, you know. But it would be terrific if someone had the conscience and courage to reschedule it."

In other words: "Artistic freedom" is to be upheld in words, while the offending art itself is supposed to get the bum’s rush--carried out by private hands like powerful grant-givers or exhibit hall landlords.

Other responses were even less subtle: The New York police showed up to inspect--and especially examine one work shaped like a suitcase bomb. Fox News found some "relatives of 9/11 victims" to grind their teeth at the very idea of allowing such "offensive" art.

On the other hand, New York Times art critic Caryn James wrote:

"The show is a thoughtful, legitimate exploration of one way in which American artists’ lives have changed because of 9/11; it raises questions about artistic freedom that ought to be asked near ground zero. And the anger directed against the show reveals some chilling cultural trends: the devaluing of art as a proper response to 9/11, and the persistent, wrongheaded idea that to question the government is to dishonor the memory of those who died."

Artists under fire, art curators feeling the air sucked out of the culture, rebel spirits refusing to buckle and go along--it took real courage from all of them to conceive of this witty and edgy "A Knock at the Door…" art show and then dare to actually see it through. Here is a defiant response to walls that rebel artists see closing in all around them. Here was a cry to the rest of us to find our voice and pick our spot to take a stand.

Artist Dread Scott told Revolution:

"This is a time when the government is shutting down critical thought and dissent, a time when they are waging war for empire. It is significant that in the face of this, many artists are making work which reflect deeply on this pivotal moment in hisory and what is going on in the world. And it is courageous that this exhibit has been brought together to highlight work that the government finds so dangerous that they want to prevent an audience from seeing it. As the battles get fought out over the direction of this society, work like this is challenging, provoking and very needed."