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Salt Lake City Weekly Censoring Utah's Art

Controversial Art Is "Making Waves" at The Salt Lake Art Center.

By Christopher Smart

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  Censorship.

It's a word no one takes kindly to. But it's something that happens regularly, even here, in the land of the free, where we bandy about the First Amendment as though it were a cross held up to vanquish the vampires who would silence truth.

When the District Attorney steals newspapers or when citizens demand that risqué CDs be banned from public libraries, a loud protest goes up: Freedom of speech — no censorship! But when art is banned or taken out of public places because it is "offensive" to somebody, anybody, we, the Utah culture, shrug our collective shoulders and walk away.

Why is that? Art is, after all, a form of speech, of expression, and in many instances reflects the truth of our time more perhaps than words. Yet art is banned and censored regularly.

There is, of course, Rush and Newt's crowd who point to artists, like Robert Maplethorpe, and say the public should not be charged with funding such "objectionable" images. But in this state, censorship of art has gone much beyond that. Questions surrounding public sponsorship rarely make it to the forefront. Rather, the question is, can it be seen at all?

Interestingly, many objects d'art banned or censored in Utah, don't seem so objectionable. That is to say, the subjects aren't all, heaven forbid, naked bodies.

Take the case of Richard Johnston's modern and somewhat non-descript steel sculpture. It was commissioned by the state's Percent for Art program and in 1988 was installed on the lawn of Utah Valley State College. But Gil Cook, a college vice president, didn't like it and ordered it cut down with a welding torch. While this newspaper featured the crime in a cover story, nothing was done to rectify the censorship.

Cook wasn't charged for this destruction of public property, or even slapped on the wrist. And the steel "horse form" remained in a garage, censored and out of sight of the public, thanks to one man — Gil Cook.

Until now, that is. Johnston's sculpture, still in pieces, is among 35 works now on display at the Salt Lake Art Center in a show called "Making Waves: Controversial Art in Utah." The show, put together by Will South, curator for the Museum of Fine Arts at the University of Utah, runs through Jan. 11 at the Art Center, 20 S. West Temple.

For a number of reasons, it could be the most interesting, if not the most breathtaking, art exhibit you may ever see in Utah.

Like the artists whose works are featured in "Making Waves," South didn't intend to make trouble. He set out only to write a history of the Salt Lake Art Center from 1931, but kept coming across controversy surrounding individual pieces of art bumping up against perceived community standards. Using old newspaper accounts and other information, South was able to catalogue the controversies accompanying each piece in the show.

The result is more than an exhibition of compelling art. It is at once an art collection and modern history of mores and politics wrapped up to produce a stark and telling reflection of our local culture. This is what we didn't want to see in the mirror. At least some of us.

"It isn't an in-your-face show," South explains. "It's more: Here is the art and here is what happened. Next to each work is a label — who, what, where, when and the outcome ... People will look at some of these things and say, 'How could that have been offensive to anyone?'"

Still, among them are some of Utah's most infamous pieces: Trevor Southey's oil of a nude man and woman seeming to swim through the ether, entitled "Flight Aspiration," was hung and then unceremoniously removed from Salt Lake City International Airport.

It came down after a complaint from Joy Beech and her organization, ironically named Citizens for True Freedom.

Like Johnston's steel sculpture and other works, Southey's painting was banned with no real community discussion. And that is exactly what the "Making Waves" exhibit hopes to spawn, says South. "If we had thrashed that out in a community way, we may have had a different result. Maybe no community standard was violated," he offers.

In an essay by the same name, South points to a similar controversy at the Salt Lake City Art Center in 1933, when nudes by Lee Greene Richards were hung at the Finch Lane gallery, called the Art Barn. But when a community meeting was held, the majority found that nudes were not indecent as art.

"That sort of discussion is what is missing today. What we are hoping for is greater dialogue on these issues," South told City Weekly.

Among the ideas South puts forward is something of a compromise for the display of the art that our self-appointed culture police might say violates so-called community values.

"There have to be areas in the community where censorship is completely off limits," South said, pointing to museums and art centers, "where we would expect to see art. But in libraries, schools and airports, a policy of compromise is reasonable ... "

Be that as it may, reason seemed to be absent when many of the pieces in the "Making Waves" exhibit were forced from public view.

"We'll never get rid of controversy, but we can handle it more maturely," says South.

That, too, remains to be seen.

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