Ken Foster is the executive director of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.
Last fall, a radio station in New York decided not to air a reading of the extraordinary poem “Howl,” by San Francisco poet Alan Ginsberg, on the 50th anniversary of its publication. The station feared it would be fined by the FCC for obscenity – despite the fact that the poem’s publisher won a freedom of expression case when the piece was first published in the 1950s.
Accounts of the original reading of “Howl” are electrifying and make you wish you were there. It was one of those moments when the work of an artist connects with the zeitgeist and an entire generation finds its voice. Yet even 50 years later, the fear of reprisal, and going out of business, was so strong that the radio station did the censorship work of a governmental agency.
When you have an FCC packed with ass-hats like Kevin Martin and Deborah Taylor Tate, this is the kind of cold wind that will blow across the sea of free expression. Decades of progress turned back with the wrinkled nose of an uptight asshole appointed for no other reason than his/her right wing political correctness.
Not long after I heard about this incident, Lawrence Ferlinghetti – poet, painter, and the original American publisher of “Howl” – approached Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. A series of his paintings had recently been removed from a private office building, because someone was offended by their content. “Would you hang the paintings at YBCA?” he wanted to know.
Foster then goes on to blame the incremental growth of the chilling effect culture that we have suffered in silence for too long. He points to the warning labels at the beginning of movie trailers as an example. When a movie can be distilled down to a warning label for sexuality, violence, or language, it tells us all that these are appropriate categories of “risks” that we must avoid or encounter at our own peril.
In this post-Mapplethorpe age, whole exhibitions, parts of exhibitions, performances, and films carry warnings about potentially disturbing content. God forbid we should accidentally encounter a work of art that somehow rocks our world and shakes us out of our settled expectations. I’ve realized that our fear of what might happen has caused us to do something that, in truth, I don’t think we should be doing – warning you about “dangerous” art.
I decided we needed to take action. So, on Tuesday, we invite you to come to YBCA, to see the Ferlinghetti paintings on view in our lobby, and to hear the poem “Howl” read by literary luminaries Jack Hirschman, devorah major, Janice Mirikitani and Khalil Anthony. See for yourself what all the fuss is about.
We also decided that from here on in, we will no longer post warning signs at YBCA. Our institution is dedicated to challenging you – and we think that’s why you come here. We think art’s purpose is to challenge us. Controversy, like beauty, will be left to the eye of the beholder.
Ken Foster, First Amendment Bad Ass of the week.