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Censorship a Theme at Erotic Arts Fair

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Councilmember Abbe Land and Mayor John Heilman officially open the Erotic Arts Fair at West Hollywood Park.
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Councilmember Abbe Land and Mayor John Heilman officially open the Erotic Arts Fair at West Hollywood Park. Credit JamesF.Mills
Drag nuns, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, were on hand as part of the official opening ceremony. Credit JamesF.Mills
Michael Thorn, editor-in-chief of Instigator Magazine, weighs in on the censorship debate. Credit JamesF.Mills
Bo Tobin of Tom of Finland Foundation offers his insight on the censorship discussion. Credit JamesF.Mills

At the event this weekend, LGBT community members discuss public homoerotic imagery and where the city of West Hollywood fits in.

By James F. Mills | Email the author | March 27, 2011

Censorship was the talk of the 16th annual Tom of Finland Erotic Arts Fair, which opened its two-day exhibition at West Hollywood Park Auditorium on Saturday. Dozens of exhibitors displayed their erotically themed artwork, while hundreds of people came through to see and purchase it.

Dedicated to preserving and exhibiting erotic art, Los-Angeles-based Tom of Finland puts on the fair each year.

Despite years of city sponsorship, the Arts and Cultural Affairs Commission (ACAC) voted in January not to sponsor the art fair. One reason given was that the event would be taking place in the park “where there are children.”

Dan Berkowitz, co-chair of the city’s Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board and a former president of the Tom of Finland Foundation, was present at the ACAC meeting.

“The most alarming thing is none of the people on that commission are our enemies. They are one of us,” Berkowitz said. “When the LGBT community is attempting to censor its own … things are really in trouble.”

The vote provoked outrage across the gay community with cries that the gay community had gotten too far from its roots where homoerotic imagery was encouraged.

The City Council quickly moved to approve sponsorship of the arts fair. The event went on as scheduled, but not everyone was supportive.

Bo Tobin of the Tom of Finland Foundation reported that the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center declined to put up posters promoting the Erotic Arts Fair. Tobin said center workers were concerned about the poster containing the image of Michelangelo’s “David” and the use of the word “erotic.”

With censorship on everyone’s minds, the fair held a symposium Saturday afternoon titled: “Is Self-Censorship Really Self-Loathing in Gay Culture?”

Artist Michael Kirwan called the censorship controversy just part of a larger problem in the LGBT community.

“How can we be gay men without expressing our sexuality?” asked Kirwan. “Arts have always been a way for people with minds of courage to express themselves . . . allowing the most needy among us to commandeer our community.”

Berkowitz believes the problem is more insidious than censorship.

“We are all becoming victims of our success in mainstreaming gay culture,” he said. “Bare chaps may be OK in Silver Lake, but they’re not OK in La Jolla.”

Longtime activist Ivy Bottini, also a member of the city’s Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board, believes the gay community has allowed larger organizations to take over what smaller, grass-roots groups once did.

“We have become a community of check writers,” she said. “We used to do protests in the streets. Unless we get off our butts, bare or not, we are digging our own graves.”

Bottini believes that in the push for same-sex marriage, the LGBT community has been cleaned up for better presentation to the rest of society. And by cleaning up, many on the edge are being left out.

Michael Thorn, editor-in-chief of Instigator magazine, agreed, saying that corporate sponsorship of gay pride has diluted pride because the companies want to clean things up and get rid of the rough edges.

“Everybody’s got a right to be normal, but there is something even better about not being normal,” said Tobin.

Later in the afternoon, Mayor John Heilman and Councilwoman Abbe Land came to officially open the arts fair. Fair organizers thanked Heilman and Land for the city gifting them the use of the auditorium. Heilman replied that it was not a gift from the city, but rather “it’s a gift to us to have you here.”

Heilman said he hoped the Erotic Arts Fair would continue to be in West Hollywood for years to come and added that he would do anything possible to make sure it stays in the city.

Land commented on how thrilled she has been over the years to see the fair grow, first in Plummer Park and now in West Hollywood Park. Noticing how the entire auditorium was filled with artists and exhibitors, Land added, “We need to find a bigger venue for you.”

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Revisiting the Culture Wars and Looking Ahead

Using the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Arts’ “decency clause,” National Coalition Against Censorship initiated a conversation about the arts and their place in society today. Two panels, organized in collaboration with the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, brought together survivors of the culture wars and culture workers who are coming to creative maturity today. The story went like this: once upon a time artists and arts organizations could depend on government grants that gave them room to experiment and explore ideas, perhaps even to try and change the world, but public arts funding was relentlessly attacked.

Conservative legislators crucified the work of controversial artists on the Senate floor, and the NEA was forced to become an agency funding mainly “safe” programs. The good news is artists today still believe they are changing the world and they still create work that questions certainties (albeit with the awareness that it may be attacked, even censored). They no longer, however, have public funding as an option, and institutions that depend on public funding are all too much aware of the strings attached. As the “decency” clause targeted primarily work dealing with sexuality, the live events concluded with a screening and discussion of films challenging taboos around the representation of sex (co-sponsored by the BFA Department of Visual & Critical Studies at the School of Visual Arts). The conversation continues online through an ongoing series of video interviews with artists and curators worldwide, Power, Taboo and the Artist.

[In 1990, Congress amended the statute governing the National Endowment for the Arts to require that the NEA chairperson consider “general standards of respect and decency for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public” when awarding art grants. Four artists—Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes and Tim Miller, known collectively as the “NEA 4″—sued in federal court, claiming the so-called “decency clause” violated the First Amendment and forced artists to engage in self-censorship in order to obtain NEA funding.

The Supreme Court, in 1998, upheld the “decency” standard for federal grants to the arts, which requires the NEA to take into account “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public” when making grants. But the 8 to 1 decision held that the “decency” standard is only advisory, and cannot be used to censor controversial art or ideas. Justice Souter, the lone dissenter, said the “decency” clause violates the First Amendment: “A statute disfavoring speech that fails to respect Americans’ diverse beliefs and values’ is the very model of viewpoint discrimination.]

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Artist Marc DeBauch asks, “TOO EROTIC???!!!!!”

Hello Erotic Art Aficionados! Censorship is alive and well within the GLBT community.

MARC DEBAUCH (American), Mansweat, 2006, Oil on canvas, 12" x 9"
MARC DEBAUCH (American), Mansweat, 2006, Oil on canvas, 12″ x 9″

 I submitted the image Mansweat to the Twin Cities 2010 Pride Art Show and it was rejected because the jury found it “too erotic”.

The jury didn’t want to offend anyone that would visit the exhibition venue, The Art Institutes International Minnesota, a well known school for graphic design and culinary arts.

After speaking with several artists and friends I wrote the following email to Rob Anderson the coordinator of the 2010 PRIDE Art Show.

But it would be better if you could tell Rob Anderson, the Grand Marshal’s Reception & Pride Art Show Coordinator what you think about a gay pride festival censoring an image of a shirtless man.

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