Over the last few days Sara and I have read a lot, if not all, of the commentary that’s been posted online about the abrupt removal of our friend Blu’s mural on the exterior of Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art. Understandably, almost all of the discussion has been focused on the seemingly rash decision by Jeffrey Deitch, the newly appointed Director of MOCA, to remove the mural immediately after it was completed without any opportunity for debate and dialogue to happen before it’s removal.
Being a high profile and extremely colorful figure, it makes sense that Deitch would quickly become the focus of the blogosphere’s vitriol. It was his sole decision to destroy the mural before the public could see it, and because the mural was commissioned and authorized, it can also be said to be an act of censorship. When you read the accounts of what happened, (as well as what didn’t happen) it certainly seems that the criticism is justified. And we’ve contributed some of our own criticism to that dialogue, both publicly and privately.
But for us, this discussion about Blu’s mural should be a lot more than just a vilification of Jeffrey Deitch and a show of support for Blu. For us, it has more to do with the fact that as time goes on, more and more of our museums fail to live up to the ideals that we have for them. We want, and expect, museums to defend our free speech. We want, and expect, museums to provide a home for provocative thought. We want, and expect, museums to provoke and inspire debate. What we should not want is for museums to be so constrained and commercial that they add very little to the public debate.
The reality is that fewer and fewer museums live up to our ideals. To keep their doors open, museums like MOCA need to appease powerful donors and mount shows that are commercial and bring in the masses. It’s becoming rarer and rarer for museums to mount truly provocative shows that challenge us and change the course of our society.
When Sara and I were invited by the Tate Modern in 2008 to give a lecture and slide show as part of their Street Art show, we debated up until the last moment whether we would participate. Finding out that “the exhibition” was only murals on the exterior of the building and that there were no works of art inside, was a huge problem for us. It made the exterior murals more about marketing the Tate Modern than about doing a survey of the movement. The Tate Modern placed street art back at the kids table, rather than having it sit alongside the parents. Learning at the 12th hour that Nissan was a huge title sponsor without notifying any of the participants in advance of this, was another problem for us. But in the end we did participate. What we ended up doing was to (1) mention our concerns onstage and (2) make our slide show more provocative then we had first planned, feeling that our lecture would act as a sort of trojan horse for street art to actually enter the Tate while the Tate had excluded it.
When we did our 11 Spring exhibition in December of 2006, we mounted it inside a private building without any outside funding or public support. We had no brand sponsors and the show was completely free to visitors. It would not have been possible, for many reasons, to mount that same show in a museum. And while the show had a bit of its own controversy, with people questioning the motives of the new owner of the building as well as some questioning our own curatorial decisions, the show was exactly what we wanted it to be with absolutely zero compromises.
Ironically, immediately after 11 Spring’s three day run, we were contacted by New York City officials asking us to help them to learn how shows like 11 Spring could be done by public institutions. We told them we didn’t believe that it could be done, for the very reasons why Blu’s wall was removed.
But the bottom line is this - EVERY artist wants to be recognized by their peers and the public at large. One would be hard-pressed to find any artist – including graffiti and street artists – who didn’t want to do everything they could to be included in a museum’s collection. Museums mean that you are part of history. All artists want to be part of history, especially graffiti and street artists.
To judge something that you’re not a part of, before you’ve seen the final result, is not a practice that Sara and I engage in. So we, even now, have no ability or desire to judge or critique the upcoming street art show that Deitch and MOCA will mount in April. But certainly the removal of Blu’s wall doesn’t signal that the show itself will be very daring and provocative.
Our hope is that the final outcome from all of the discussion this month about Blu, Deitch, MOCA, and censorship is that it will become a clear catalyst for Deitch, the curators, and the artists, to be even more daring with their work and its message INSIDE, knowing now that this will not be the case OUTSIDE.