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Fit for Public Consumption
By John Petrick
Journal staff writer
A Jersey City artist and the board of directors of the Downtown Historic Special Improvement District have reached a tentative compromise over a controversial exhibit in the SID's office that some Hamilton Park area residents found offensive and demanded be taken down.
While it may look like a small art exhibit in an ordinary storefront office, the situation has raised big questions about censorship and the function of art in how it impacts a community.
Jersey City artist Martin Beck's solo exhibit was put up Sept. 23 at the invitation of SID Director Brian Hempstead, who left his post just days later for a new job.
The deal was brokered through Consolidated Arts, an organization linking Jersey City artists with galleries and businesses that are looking to show new work. The SID office, on Grove Street just off Newark Avenue, has hosted a number of other artists' works over the past year.
Since the exhibit went up, however, SID board members say a number of residents have complained about some of the subject matter - particularly images of nude children.
As a result, one painting was removed altogether and two were moved to the rear of the office, out of plain view. Signs were posted in the office explaining that because of the sensitive nature of certain works, patrons interested in seeing those particular pieces should ask an office attendant to direct them to the paintings.
"I've never been relegated to the 'back of the video store' before," Beck said.
The board maintains that representatives of Consolidated Arts, on behalf of Beck, decided themselves to remove "Dogs" from the exhibit after some office staff members complained about it. Board officials also maintain the other two paintings were relocated with the blessing of Consolidated Arts, on behalf of the artist.
While representatives of Consolidated Arts and Beck might have agreed to remove the first painting, they deny they wanted to relocate any of the works but did so at the board's insistence in the hopes that a better solution could be ironed out later.
The artist describes the three paintings at issue - including "Dogs" - as "figurative and interpretive" in style. The two others share the title "Noli me Tangere."
"Dogs" depicts, among other things, what could be interpreted as a dog engaged in a sex act with another dog. "Noli me Tangere" depicts figures that could be interpreted as nude children touching each other.
Beck notes that because the work is not specifically representational, it's open to interpretation.
"We all come to look at artwork with whatever cultural baggage we carry," he said. "Sometimes, those interpretations can be disturbing to the person looking at it. But that doesn't mean it's necessarily in the work."
Beck said he is a bit bewildered that anyone would be offended by the exhibit, which also contains many paintings that do not contain images suggesting the naked human form.
At an SID board of directors meeting Tuesday, Beck and representatives of Consolidated Arts confronted board members about their decision to censor the exhibit. Board members maintained it wasn't censorship, as two of the paintings were simply moved to another part of the office.
"We're not demolishing the show. We're asking you to make modifications. . . . I don't think relocating is the same as censorship," said board President Jerry Blankman.
But Beck disagreed.
"Any time someone censors a show, they think, 'Oh. It's just a little thing,' " he said. "But by doing this, you're characterizing the work. . . . It places a judgment on the content. And placing a judgment on content is censorship."
Board members argued that they are not running a professional art gallery and that they donated the space as a gift to the artist. They also suggested that they are now stuck with a decision made by former director Hempstead.
"We had too many people coming in and being upset by naked children with their hands on the private parts of other naked children. . . . The people who have come in here have had extremely uncomplimentary words," Blankman said, noting that promotional bills for the exhibit posted around the neighborhood are what triggered residents to come in and complain.
Beck said he was issued a summons for littering and faces a $100 fine for posting the bills.
"Why are we the ones blessed with art that has naked children?" said board member Michael Bochner. "Was this your impression of Jersey City?"
"So you think the exhibit is about naked children?" Beck asked, seeming nonplused.
"To have this in a place where people are coming in to, say, get a brochure on a hardware store, I just don't think it's appropriate," Blankman said.
After much back-and-forth debate, Beck proposed a solution that the board ultimately approved.
"Censorship issues are very emotional, very confusing, and the way to solve it might be to give people more information," Beck said.
Beck proposed that he personally write explanatory notes to accompany the pieces that might better address the public's concerns about their content. He also offered to give public talks to community groups or anyone else interested or offended by the exhibit.
The board agreed to the compromise. The three paintings are expected to be returned to their regular positions with the accompanying artist's notes some time this weekend.