Art at Work:
Democracy Untested is Democracy Denied
Exposure, The Journal of the Society of Photographic Education
Summer 1990, Volume 27, Number 3
Deborah Small, Elizabeth Sisco,
Louis Hock, and David Avalos
Through our collaborative work as public artists, we have engaged the narrative
of power which governs San Diego. We not only seek to make visible the network
that creates this narrative of power, but also to make clear how civil rights
in our city are subverted by corporate agendas and the tourist industry.
We wish to participate in the definition of our city, and to encourage the
presence of other voices and perspectives. In the pursuit of this aim, while
working to create a genuine public space for our work, we have revealed
the city's practice of limiting constitutional liberties, especially freedom
All of our projects raise questions relevant to the current debate surrounding
public art, de facto racism, and censorship. Our work lays bare sensitive
areas that the local interlocking power structure of government, industry,
and press would prefer to ignore. This power structure attempts to delegitimate
us as political actors, and therefore we must create new ways to control
the meaning of our work and its presentation. The press frequently attempts
to shift the focus of our work from politics to personality, from societal
racism to what some commentators see as our hypocrisy as middle-class critics
of the power structure. To defy these attempts to trivialize our work, and
to increase the public that our artwork serves, we have found it necessary
to improvise constantly.
Our first public project was the bus poster, Welcome to America's Finest
Tourist Plantation (1988), which addressed the role of undocumented workers
in San Diego's tourist-based economy. We then created Welcome to America's
Finest a) City b) Tourist Plantation or c) Convention Center (l989), a billboard
which addressed the city's relationship to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King,
Jr. Our most recent project was the media campaign and street performance
Welcome Back Emma (1989), an historical reenactment of the I.W.W.'s (Industrial
Workers of the World) struggle against racism, and the fight for free speech
in San Diego in 1912.
In September 1989, several San Diego artists organized a large group exhibition,
No Stomach, to address the then-pending Helms amendment. We created the
following essay for the show to articulate our opposition to censorship
in the arts, including the censorship of the gallery which sponsored our
Censorship and the San Diego Connection
Every time I hear the word culture I reach for my pistol.
—attributed to Hermann Goering
Jesse Helms and Company have their six-guns loaded, pointed, and ready
to fire, and their bullets aren't blanks. Congressional recommendations
to punish organizations that have funded and exhibited artwork by Andres
Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe are extraordinary acts of ex post facto
censorship, but no more dramatic than what is happening in San Diego.
The abuse of power by politicians who restrict and control art that is
controversial, provocative, and critical is already the status quo locally.
In San Diego, politicians have what Helms can only dream of-final approval
on funding to artists and art organizations. San Diego doesn't need six-guns,
not with Mayor O'Connor and her eight City Council cohorts who approve
or reject funding to protect the city's corporate agenda and tourist industry.
In May, the San Diego Council's Public Service and Safety Committee (PSSC)
"just said no" to a recommendation by the city's own Commission
for Arts and Culture to fund San Diego's Installation Gallery. The PSSC
withdrew $42,000 in funding intended for Installation, hoping to punish
the gallery for sponsoring a controversial work of public art, our billboard
addressing San Diego's relationship to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King,
Jr. Later, when the full council narrowly overturned the PSSC's decision
and restored $37,500 to Installation, the Council still restricted the
use of those funds, thereby retaining control over the arts.
Politically, the crusade against the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts]
displaces scandal and charges of dishonesty from the attackers
to those attacked.
—Carole S. Vance, "The War on Culture," Art in America
The Helms Amendment is not about censorship vs. freedom of speech. It
is about adding to the level of censorship that now exists. Congressional
attempts to limit artistic freedom of expression constrict participation
in already narrowed debates. (Witness, for example, the absence of social
critic Noam Chomsky from the editorial pages of major American newspapers,
or the continued banishment of novelist Gore Vidal from network television
twenty years after his on-the-air skirmish with William F. Buckley, Jr.)
Our access to information will be even more limited in the near future.
According to media analyst Ben Bagdikian, five to ten corporations will
control production of most of the world's information, including newspapers,
magazines, books, data bases, broadcast stations, movies, recordings,
and video cassettes. The people who would limit artistic freedom of expression
in the name of decency, morality, and the American way are the same crew
who support the corporate agenda of maximized profits. Helms finds "evil"
in government funding for the arts, but "good" in government
subsidies for the tobacco industry. Anyone who suggests otherwise-that
what's good for corporate America is not necessarily good for the community-is
automatically labeled disloyal and subversive.
We live in an era when it is far more respectable to restrict constitutional
rights than to defend the liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. But
pointing the finger exclusively at Helms suppresses inquiry into the social
climate that makes the elimination of First Amendment rights possible.
It absolves Helms' congressional partners of their complicity in undercutting
freedom of expression, their responsibility for eroding democratic values,
and their culpability for undermining institutions like the NEA. Freedom
of expression is already diminished by the censorship implicit in corporate
funding for the arts. Now the government, in lock-step with corporations,
wants to tighten the noose of censorship by eliminating funding for dissenting
The ease with which we focus on the point man for the conservative agenda
can blind us to the need to look critically at the very institutions we
are supporting against congressional attack. Museums and galleries are
already in the business of censoring art. Demonization of Helms diverts
attention from the fact that museums and galleries are not bastions of
free expression. Museums still promote racial separation, social hierarchies,
and cultural hegemony. The challenge to artists is not merely to defeat
the Helms Amendment, but to restructure cultural gatekeeping institutions
so they fully represent the diversity of our society.
I kept giving them credit for being our kind of people, but they're dictators!
They're people who will try to hold power even if they have to poison
the town to do it.
Stockmann in Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People
In San Diego, the narrowing of diversity at the national level is mirrored
in the local trend toward homogenization of thought. City promoters aim
to further the entertainment model of discourse, viewing all issues through
the twin lenses of public relations and consumerist marketing strategies.
City officials rationalize existing social, economic, and political relationships
by constantly referring to San Diego as "America's Finest City,"
a rhetorical mantra that sanctifies the status quo. Thus art that is critical
of San Diego, according to city officials, subverts America's Finest City.
The city council wants to promote civic pride and consensus through fabricated
postcard images of San Diego rather than through extended discussion about
pressing local issues.
As public artists, our work seeks to preserve and expand constitutional
liberties in general and freedom of expression in particular; in addition,
we aim through our work to expose the local power structure that subverts
these rights in favor of corporations and the tourist industry. We insist
on participating in the definition of our city rather than accepting the
fantasy image conjured for marketing. As part of our commitment to the
real issues San Diego confronts, both as a major border region and as
a growing metropolis, we have created a series of public artworks. These
artworks have had broad repercussions, including censorship by the city.
1987 was a pivotal year in San Diego. The city began construction on the
West Coast's largest convention center. It also won the bid to host the
following year's Superbowl, to be held on January 31, 1988. On Januarv
4, 1988, our poster with the greeting "Welcome to America's Finest
Tourist Plantation" appeared on the back of half the buses operated
by San Diego Transit.
This appropriation of the city's self-aggrandizing slogan was superimposed
on a triptych of photographs. The central image was of a Border Patrol
agent handcuffing two Mexican men arrested on a San Diego Transit bus.
To the left and to the right of this image were photographs of the hands
of a dishwasher and a chambermaid, representing the undocumented and invisible
workers of the tourist industry.
The image was unavoidable. Clearly intended to provoke controversy and
media scrutiny, the poster was delivered to people's homes via television,
and radio, and the daily newspaper. San Diego's self-promotion apparatus
exploded with criticism and the news media jumped, fueling the controversy
and activating the artwork.
The poster served as a catalyst for public debate. Our intention was to
focus this debate on the racism implicit in building a tourist economy
by exploiting an undocumented labor force. However, in San Diego, the
city hotel-motel tax is used to fund works of art; the fact that our work
was in part sponsored through this tax created the loudest protests from
the warden's of San Diego's official image. "I have trouble using
taxpayers' dollars to put down this beautiful city of San Diego,"
said Councilwoman Gloria McColl.
The city's repressive apparatus was mobilized through a series of behind-the-scenes
and public actions designed to censor our examination of the underpinnings
of the local economy:
1) Pressure by the mayor's office on the Metropolitan Transit Development
Board (MTDB) to remove the poster.
2) Calls from San Diego Channels 8 and 39‹broadcast over each station-demanding
that the MTDB remove the poster.
3) Reassurances from the city council that, through the establishment
of a Commission for Arts and Culture, city money would never again be
allocated for such artworks.
4) Revision of MTDB policies to allow the rejection of any images critical
of any law enforcement agencies.
5) Investigation by the California Legislative Council, at the request
of State Assemblyperson Larry Stirling (R-San Diego), to determine whether
public funds could be used to support opinions critical of the city. (No
In April 1989, with a $100 budget from Installation Gallery in San Diego
and billboard space donated by Gannett Outdoor Advertising, we created
Welcome to America's Finest a) City b) Tourist Plantation c) Convention
Center. The project addressed the city's inability to find a fitting tribute
for the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. City officials proposed that the
new convention center be named after King, but later changed their minds
when their Port Commissioners voted against it. In this effort to avoid
controversy, city officials clearly demonstrated whose voices matter-certainly
not those of the African-American community or those who want the city
to acknowledge its diversity.
In our effort to contribute to this public debate, we experienced
yet another attempt by the city to stifle controversy, and we were threatened
with corporate censorship. Declaring that the billboard was not art, Gannett
tried to get Installation Gallery to remove the artwork. Two months later,
city officials voted to defund Installation. When City Council member
Ron Roberts was asked by The San Diego Union if Installation's money was
cut because of budgetary problems or because of his opposition to the
billboard, Roberts replied, "I guess I would have to admit to both.
I'll be stupid enough to do that." In the debate surrounding the
of funds to Installation, Roberts stated, "The First Amendment says
that there should be free speech... It doesn't mean that the City Council
has to be paying for that."
Although part of the funds slated for Installation were eventually provided
to the gallery, the fallout from this project has blanketed the art community
with worry over future funding and self-censorship. Asked by the Village
Voice if he would work with us on a billboard project in the future, Hugh
Davies, director of the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, stated that
if "[they] don't get anyone to pick up their next billboard, it'll
be because we're all cowed by the prospect of censorship."
The lords of the global village have their own political agenda. All resist
economic changes that do not support their own financial interests. Together,
they exert a homogenizing power over ideas, cultures, and commerce that
affects populations larger than any
—Ben Bagdikian, "The Lords of the Global Village," The
Nation (June 12, 1989)
We see ourselves as participants in a democracy, not as an audience in
a San Diegoland version of our city. We feel that a multiplicity of voices
and perspectives are basic to the health of any democracy. But instead
of a dialogue contributing to the planning of upcoming San Diego events,
we hear the single voice of Mayor Maureen O'Connor. In keeping with the
trend toward cultural engineering, the Mayor has taken it upon herself
to become lord of the city's cultural village.
For the San Diego Arts Festival, local politicians have gone beyond censorship.
Censorship restricts the right of expression. In San Diego, the arts community
has not been restricted, but eliminated. The Mayor, as corporate raider,
has appointed herself the board of directors, the museum administrator,
and the curatorial staff for the entire upcoming Festival, which will
celebrate the "Treasures of the Soviet Union." She did not seek
approval for the Festival from the City Commission on Arts and Culture.
She used the machinery of her office to establish a separate corporate
entity, San Diego Festivals, Inc., and convinced the city to give this
corporation $3 million of taxpayer money, and gained a commitment from
the city to raise a matching amount from local corporations. O'Connor
also appointed all festival executives, who report to her. She has extended
this bureaucratic purview by incorporating the staffs of all cultural
institutions that will participate in the Festival. And finally, she has
assumed dictatorial authority in decisions about which events will or
will not be a part of the Festival. She has formed her own San Diego Ministry
of Culture to centralize and control the content and character of a festival
that should involve full community participation.
In the year of a Soviet arts festival, it's particularly ironic and depressing
that a form of censorship we associate with totalitarian regimes should
be visited on a San Diego institution [Installation] that has pioneered
free speech in our community.
—Hugh Davies, "America's finest censors or just plain budget
cut?," The San Diego Union (June 5,1989)
Some politicians want us to believe that because they are able to appropriate
funding for the arts, they should be able to appropriate the rights of
artists. We must resist the sophisticated organizational tactics of those
who would impose a conservative agenda. In San Diego we must take concerted
actions to eliminate the abuse and censorship that exists within the local
process of public funding for the arts. The City Council of San Diego
must get out of the censorship business, and must trust their own Commission
on the Arts and Culture to establish a fair and equitable process of review
which avoids politicization. The Commission should evaluate the problems
created by Mayor O'Connor's San Diego Festivals, Inc., and individual
politicians must be discouraged from forming their own cultural apparatuses.
Finally, the arts community must define its rightful place in the creation
of San Diego's cultural identity. Democracy untested is democracy denied.
In keeping with our commitment to participate in San Diego's cultural
identity, we applied for and received a 1989 Inter-Arts NEA grant to create
a series of works addressing San Diego's historic struggles for freedom
of expression. In the first of these works, the full-page advertisement
for a street performance was censored by San Diego's largest newspaper,
The San Diego Union. It subsequently ran in a local weekly paper, with
a new headline declaring: "THE AD THE SAN DIEGO UNION DOESN'T WANT
YOU TO SEE." The performance went on as planned, drawing 200 people
out into the streets of downtown San Diego to commemorate the 1912 Free
Speech movement. In the fall of 1990, our group will address the relationship
in San Diego between migrant labor and urban development.
Shortly after the ad was censored, Elizabeth Sisco, a member of the collaboration,
resigned from an NEA Visual Arts Organizations panel review, claiming
that the peer review process had been subverted by internal censorship
of so-called controversial grant applications. In an effort to expand
community awareness about current NEA practices and to foster a climate
hospitable to dialogue and debate, we recently organized a forum in San
Diego to discuss censorship issues. (This forum included Philip Brookman,
curator for the Washington Project for the Arts, the gallery that sponsored
the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition after the Corcoran's cancellation.)
To continue to participate in the community's cultural identity, we, like
people in all communities, must develop strategies to address the censorship
of ideas, the stifling of diversity, and endemic racism.