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In yet another case of a politician attacking works of art on the grounds of moral outrage, Alderman Jon Lord has circulated a press release to media sources in the city citing his "disgust" with two exhibitions on display at the Calgary Performing Arts Centre. As happens repeatedly in these situations both in Calgary and elsewhere, the media has obligingly pulled out the soap box for Lord, providing him with a platform for his reactionary vitriol. In a pattern that is repeated with each new censorial outcry, neither the politician nor the media sources that hype the story make any real attempt to initiate discussion or analysis of the art in question. Instead both the work and the intentions of the artists are misrepresented and decontextualized.
In this instance, the works that Jon Lord targets are "Punish," an installation by Jeff Bray and Dallas Seitz, and "Codpiece Samplers" by Karen Kay. "Codpiece Samplers," which closed on March 9 after a successful two-month run, featured a humorous series of crocheted codpieces in a variety of styles and sizes. The installation mimicked a store display similar to those found in any lingerie department, store window or sales flyer. It is not exactly clear why Lord found it unsuitable for public display (presumably the Alderman has not sent a press release condemning the Bay for its bra and panty displays) but response to the piece was highly positive and supportive.
"Punish," the other work vehemently attacked by Lord, is an installation dealing with issues of authority and power in relation to children. It explores the malleability and vulnerability of children and the way in which they are affected by the social and moral structures enforced by our society. The work is poignant and intelligent, a far cry from the brutal, inaccurate description given by Lord in his press release. Unfortunately, it is that description of a meat hook hanging over amputated legs that has misinformed reports in the media and caused knee-jerk responses from some members of the public.
It is ironic that the abuse of power in its many manifestations and the ways that it affects the lives of children is a topic with great currency these days. Documentaries, articles, news reports, even made-for television movies are continually exploring the theme. The need for open discussion has been articulated on numerous occasions as a means of preventing devastating abuse and yet, what Lord and his supporters are demanding is censorship of an art work that is attempting to contribute to that important discussion. With its implied rather than literal content the piece is a far cry from the violent, disturbing images found repeatedly while surfing the channels on television or even encountered on the streets and in malls. Lord worries that "a small child might be severely traumatized by this horrible display" and yet many children are exposed to more graphic images with little concern. As well, the question goes begging: are small children being allowed to roam the +15's without adult supervision? Don't parents discuss potentially disturbing or challenging images and experiences with their children as a means of teaching them about the world? With its symbolic rather than graphic content, would a child even read the work in the same way that an adult would? It should be up to parents and viewers to decide what can be construed as disturbing, not a politician with his own personal agenda and the patronizing belief that he knows what is appropriate or palatable for the public.
Lord argues that he is a "supporter of the arts" and yet he insults the art community by implying that any response to his challenge would be "a space cadet, word salad answer." He then goes on to say it "denigrates the art community to defend this nonsense." What then is Lord's idea of supportable art? Is it pretty pictures of bucolic landscapes? Can the work challenge the viewer, or does that transgress the line Lord draws in the sand? Is art about the articulation of ideas and concerns or is it merely meant to be comfortable decoration that goes with the couch? Instead of running to the media with a sensationalist attack, why not ask the galleries or artists responsible for the exhibitions to discuss the works in a public forum that allows for all perspectives to be voiced and considered.
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