Of Terrorists and Cowards...
“If you want to desecrate religion in a disgusting way, if you want to promote racism, if you want to promote anti-Semitism, if you want to promote anti-Catholicism, if you want to promote anti-Islamism, then do it on your own money”.
Thus spake New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani on February 17, 2001 in response to photographer Renée Cox’s “Yo Mama’s Last Supper,” in an attack on the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s exhibition “Committed to the Image.” Much like a similar tirade in 1999 with a controversial and unsuccessful attempt to shut down the “Sensation” exhibition over a painting of Virgin Mary decorated with elephant dung, as common an art medium in Africa as paint is in the United States. By slashing $497,000 in city funding to the Brooklyn Museum and going to court to evict it from the city-owned building.
Back then, the art world was dumfounded by the notion of a nosy, philandering politician sticking his nose into the affairs of artists and museums while members of his renegade police department were sticking plungers up the anuses of the bewildered and unsuspecting in their custody. More so, after he called for a commission to set “decency standards” for art on display in public museums.
In August, in conjunction with Toomey Tourell, the art gallery representing me in an exhibition originally slated for October, we reserved and paid for a space in the October issue of Artforum magazine to promote the exhibition, “Clinton Fein’s annoy.com” which is designed to introduce the First Amendment victories of annoy.com to an offline audience. We chose what is considered a prestigious art magazine to promote an important art exhibition about the First Amendment and censorship because we believe Artforum reaches an intelligent and informed art constituency that, more than most, will appreciate the First Amendment backdrop to the exhibit.
The advertisement consisted of an image displaying a purse-lipped Rudy Giuliani sitting naked in a urine-filled glass box, referencing the technique used by artist Damien Hirst and part of an exhibit Sensation that resulted in the former mayor withholding funding from the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
The advertisement consisted of an image displaying a purse-lipped Rudy Giuliani sitting naked in a urine-filled glass box, referencing the technique used by artist Damien Hirst and part of an exhibit Sensation that resulted in the former mayor withholding funding from the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Clutching a crucifix with a nod to artist Andres Serrano and with another Giuliani targeted work, Chris Ofili’s Virgin Mary forming the backdrop, copy on the top of the image reads: “Mike for Mayor” and at the bottom, “Start Spreading the News.”
September 11, 2001
Within four days Rudy Giuliani had transformed from a beleaguered mayor battling prostate cancer and the relentless focus on his high profile and rather ugly divorce at the twilight of his final term as mayor to an international superstar. With a leadership void in Washington, his leadership momentarily comforted even me, as well as many of my friends and as well as even Chelsea Clinton, according to an upcoming article she wrote for Talk magazine.
That Friday following Tuesday’s attacks I met with Nancy Toomey and Stephen Tourell to discuss how we ought proceed. An enormous amount of effort, money and time had already been invested in the exhibition, but all of us were raw and shell shocked from the horror of the attacks, all of us having lived in New York ourselves at various times with many friends and loved ones still in the city.
Suddenly the exhibition images took on a very different tone and meaning. Images such as Dick Cheney being electrocuted by a nuclear generated electric chair powered by General Electric and a bloodied Mickey Mouse being crucified by the Southern Baptists interestingly seemed more harsh and striking than they ever had. Not to mention Tim McVeigh as Ronald McDonald. Originally designed to shock and snap an obdurate mass drunk on complacent frivolity from their reverie, the events of that week had created more shock than anyone needed.
The question we were facing was twofold. Do we postpone the exhibition as a sign of respect or do we go forward with it as a defiant nose thumbing at the creators and designers of such horror?
The question we were facing was twofold. Do we postpone the exhibition as a sign of respect or do we go forward with it as a defiant nose thumbing at the creators and designers of such horror. Nancy Toomey felt holding the exhibition was not in our interests for a number of reasons. The most practical being that none was likely to be interested in buying art of this nature at this time, but perhaps more importantly, she felt it was too soon for her to comfortably stand behind it with her full support, which is crucial to the success of the exhibition and our collaboration.
I, on the other hand, wanted to forge forward. Instinctively and from experience, I knew that something insidious was about to happen, and that the very civil liberties that the exhibition and my work represent were in grave danger. The stench of war is no match for the aroma of freedom. Whilst nationalistic propaganda flourishes, dissidence is slaughtered. People, I felt, were more engaged than ever before and that the timing for a dialogue and an artistic presentation of the ideas could not be more critical.
Stephen Tourell agreed to place a call to Artforum magazine to determine what, if any, our options were.
While we carefully deliberated whether or not to postpone the exhibition, including whether to change the image or use the ad space to direct Artforum readers to annoy.com’s message board (which has been deemed by academics as a remarkable use of technology for conflict resolution purposes), Artforum magazine unilaterally decided to pull the ad without affording us the opportunity to modify it to address their – or our own — concerns.
They would later give conflicting reasons for their decision that day, veering between operational and ideological justifications. In essence, Executive Editor, Knight Landesman, stated that the magazine was understaffed that Friday and that the editors did not feel comfortable publishing a disparaging image of Rudy Giuliani at a time when “everyone was coming together.” We would only learn of this decision the following Monday when it was too late to do anything about it.
The advertisement had been strategically placed in the October edition of Artforum magazine scheduled to hit the newsstands to coincide with the mayoral election slated for November. The image, in typical annoy.com fashion, was designed to give New York voters pause before they went to vote and to consider the extent to which Michael Bloomberg, a media mogul, might be able to control the media and to question the relationship of the candidate to art by suggesting an alliance with mayor Rudy Giuliani’s controversial record on art and its funding.
In a conversation with Knight Landesman the following Monday, I expressed my disappointment and displeasure at the appalling manner in which a contractual agreement was dishonored and the publication’s failure to exercise the basic courtesy of initiating a dialogue until it was too late to do anything about it. That we ourselves were still uncertain about how we were going to proceed, but that the dialogue I was engaged in with the gallery which allowed us to express our varying points of view and mutually arrive at some kind of a decision was a more appropriate way to handle things. Not to mention a more professional customer service protocol.
Landesman cited the editorial staff as being “uncomfortable publishing an image making fun of Rudy Giuliani while everyone is an a state of pain and suffering.”
Landesman cited the editorial staff as being “uncomfortable publishing an image making fun of Rudy Giuliani while everyone is an a state of pain and suffering.” When I asked why Artforum did not offer the gallery or myself an opportunity to select an alternative image, he stated the magazine was “understaffed” and forced to make a “quick decision” – suggesting their’s would have been an inappropriate response had there been more time or adequate staff.
Nonetheless, he still insisted that he stood behind the decision, and offered no apology for it. (Nor did anyone on the board of Artforum — all of whom were sent information regarding the incident and asked whether they felt it was an appropriate editorial or publishing decision to yank an ad about a First Amendment exhibition — especially without any kind of discussion). I asked Landesman if he would be willing to shoulder some responsibility for the decisions imposed on the art world in the event Michael Bloomberg was elected mayor. “This is not a political decision,” said Landesman, “and Michael Bloomberg is not going to win.”
“This is not a political decision,” said Landesman, “and Michael Bloomberg is not going to win.”
On September 28, 2001, I received a letter from Knight Landesman on behalf of Artforum – along with a returned check – once again expressing regret. “While there is no question about the timeliness of your artwork and the issues you have been exploring, we feel that it would be inappropriate for Artforum to engage them directly, particularly as the result of a publishing rather than editorial decision.” What the reasons behind the publishing decision were, he failed to mention. Signing off he wrote, “Thank you for choosing Artforum as a venue for your advertising and I hope you will consider us again.”
Kill It, Kill It
Fast forward. As if by clockwork, the race narrowed into a contest between Democrat Mark Green and Republican Michael Bloomberg. Up until ten days before the election, Rudy Giuliani had withheld endorsing any candidate suggesting that politics was inappropriate for him now that he was an international celebrity, and New York needed to be united, not divided. Predictably, however, such bipartisan concern did not last very long, and no sooner had Giuliani endorsed Bloomberg, the writing was on the wall.
As predicted, Bloomberg began a media onslaught that cost millions, launching a lethal combination of television and radio advertisements that included glowing testimonials from Rudy Giuliani and negative portrayals of Mark Green as slick and untrustworthy. Mark Green’s parading around of Bill Clinton probably did little to help counter the message.
Green, whose coffers were small change compared to Bloomberg’s millions could not compete. In the final days before the election, in a somewhat desperate grasp at straws, Green began broadcasting an ominous television commercial resurrecting a settled-out-of-court sexual harassment accusation against Bloomberg in which he was alleged to have angrily demanded “Kill it. Kill It!” when informed by an employee that she was pregnant by him.
Mark Green could not rely on much in the way of day-to-day news coverage, which was focused almost exclusively on the clean up efforts at Ground Zero and the anthrax fear-mongering. Naturally the round-the-clock airtime given to Giuliani, coupled with Blooberg’s repeated endorsement ads, made it all but impossible to be noticed. The day Giuliani endorsed Michael Bloomberg; the next mayor of New York City was decided.
On November 6, 2001 Michael Rubens Bloomberg was elected the 108th mayor of New York City.
Much has changed since September 11, 2001. Dissent is frowned upon, and President George W. Bush continues to frame the war America is waging in Afghanistan as a “with us or not” issue of black or white.
In the first week of the attack an anti-terrorism bill was drafted that rivals South Africa’s most draconian at the height of Apartheid.
In the first week of the attack an anti-terrorism bill was drafted that rivals South Africa’s most draconian at the height of Apartheid. Not to mention an almost unanimous vote by both chambers of Congress to give Bush full authority to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against terrorists linked to the attacks and against those that sponsor them as well as a unanimous $40 billion anti-terrorism package. Within just a month the House of Representatives voted an overwhelming 339-79 to hand law enforcement unprecedented surveillance powers and ease limits on wiretapping and Internet monitoring. Not long after the Senate approved their almost identical version by 96-1.
New anti-terrorism laws give police sweeping new powers to search people’s homes and business records secretly and to eavesdrop on telephone and computer conversations. In what Laura W. Murphy, director of the national office of the American Civil Liberties Union called a “terrifying nightmare for innocent people who are under suspicion by the attorney general,” the Bush administration secretly annihilated the principle of lawyer-client privacy, and which took effect the day before it became public. An act that hideously runs afoul of the Fourth and Sixth amendments to the U.S.Constitution.
Artforum is not a large magazine. For the art world, however, it is an important and prestigious one. While I am justifiably angry at their unprofessional, discourteous handling of the situation, I don’t believe their motivations were ill intended or deliberately malicious.
Mark Green could have used every little bit of help he could get. I’m not suggesting that Mark Green would have made a better mayor than Michael Bloomberg, that a criticism of Bloomberg was intended as a nod toward Green or that the image in Artforum could have caused enough of a stir to shift the results of an election.
It would certainly not be the first time annoy.com made headline news though. And small as it may be, as a result, Artforum might potentially have been the only source where an association with Giulinai might have triggered a negative response. (Other than, of course, communities such as those of Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo who haven’t forgotten who Rudy Giulinai is and what he represented before the attacks).
I understand that the decisions made were done so at a time of extreme duress and I don’t presume to know what kind of a state their offices or staff were in the week of September 11. Frankly, the absence of the advertisement, insofar as it affects me personally, is not particularly meaningful in the grand scheme of things and especially in the wake of some of the more hideous realities many people faced and continue to face in the wake of the terrorist attack on New York.
Artforum’s decision undermined the intelligence of their publication’s global readership to formulate their own opinions, and shielded their New York readers from exposure to a legitimate question as to who they want governing them for the next four years.
Actions still have consequences. Artforum’s decision undermined the intelligence of their publication’s global readership to formulate their own opinions, and shielded their New York readers from exposure to a legitimate question as to who they want governing them for the next four years. If a government made this decision, it would be considered a draconian and authoritarian imposition of censorship.
Art often challenges the status quo, and while Rudy Giuliani has been a tremendous pillar of support to thousands of people — even whilst attempting to grab power by overriding the will of New York voters — the declarations of war, the political rhetoric on all sides and the sweeping tide of emotion and patriotism right now have already seriously damaged our civil liberties.
Americans are strong and resilient enough to confront challenging ideas, even in the face of such a terrible tragedy. The threat posed by our willingness to blindly trade our freedom for a heightened perception of security and community cannot be underestimated. That is exactly what the powers of terrorism want.
We look to publishers and editors to provoke and provide us with the free exchange of ideas, not the suppression of information.
We look to publishers and editors to provoke and provide us with the free exchange of ideas, not the suppression of information. We expect far more from an art magazine simply being paid to publish an advertisement for a First Amendment exhibition. There was nothing to suggest it was anything else. Artforum owes its readers an apology.
Artforum pulled a politically charged advertisement. New York did not cancel an election. Michael Bloomberg won it.
Fein launched his art career in 2002, postponing his debut in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001, with a solo exhibition at San Francisco-based Toomey Tourell Gallery titled “Annoy.com” based on the images from the website and on the advice of renowned sculptor Lynda Benglis, who coined it “Press Art.”
Clinton Fein’s annoy.com is a visceral response. An in-your-face, bitterly ironic and unapologetically wry interpretation of the events, politicians, consumer brands and media onslaught that encapsulates them and permeates our consciousness in a relentless barrage.