By Kari Lydersen
From David Nelson's "Harold Washington in Lingerie," which Chicago's City Council ordered taken down from the School of the Art Institute in 1988, to Chris Ofili's "The Holy Virgin Mary" adorned with elephant dung, which New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani ordered pulled from an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art last year, artists are all too used to having their work censored and removed from exhibits because it is deemed too shocking or offensive for a public audience.
Michele Tuohey, a Cuban-American artist from Oak Park, had first-hand experience with government censorship of this type during a show sponsored by the Department of Agriculture during a state fair in Springfield, IL in August.
The show was commissioned in honor of Gov. Ryan's trip to Cuba, with local artists of Cuban descent chosen to show their work. Tuohey's husband, artist Oscar Martinez, was hired as the curator. Tuohey contributed a 77" x 77" painting called "Butterfly," symbolizing her transition into motherhood and her subsequent rebirth as a mother. The work depicts two nude women descending and ascending a staircase. An umbilical cord stretching from between one woman's legs is attached to a fetus, with the face of an adult woman. The fetus represents Tuohey herself she says, in her new role as mother. She painted the work around, the birth of her first child in 1993, and chose it for the show because of her pride in it and its highly expressive, personal nature.
The painting was hung, but the morning the show was to open, Aug. 11, it was removed from the Artisans Building wall at the orders of Department of Agriculture director Joe Hampton and other department officials. The reason according to Department of Agriculture spokesman John Herath, was that the painting was deemed too graphic and suggestive for a family audience at a state fair.
"There was a naked woman walking up the stairs and a naked woman walking down the stairs," said Herath. "So far, no problem. But the woman walking up had a blood-red umbilical cord going from between her legs to a fetus, which appeared to be dragging on the stairs. I understand her interpretation of the work, but not everyone who would see it would make that interpretation. This wasn't a private art show or museum, It was a family event where parents wouldn't be prepared to face questions that the painting might bring up for their children."
"It was up and everything was ready to go the day before the exhibit," said Martinez. "Then they took it down. I think it was an unfortunate decision made by people who were overreacting.
Tuohey, for her part, feels the painting was censored because it was suggestive of abortion, a concept Herath denies. She thinks the Governor's office felt threatened by the politically sensitive subject, even though the painting actually has nothing to do with abortion in her mind."They thought it was about abortion; and since it's an election year, they felt it could be bad for the governor," said Tuohey, who has exhibited the painting in shows in Florida and Munster, Indiana. "But this has nothing to do with abortion, it has everything to do with life."
Tuohey thinks she was unfairly censored, and that the removal of the painting represents the dangerous infringements on freedom of speech that artists and others are constantly subjected to. "I believe in the ability to express oneself, and this was a blow to freedom of expression," said Tuohey, 34, who recently graduated from DePaul's law school.
She says it is ironic that most of the artists in the show were born in Cuba, where they suffered constant artistic repression. "This show had to do with Cuban art, and these artists were born in Cuba where they weren't allowed to express themselves," she said. "And then the same thing's happening here."
A slide of the painting was shown along with a lecture by Cuban art expert Raquel Yossiffon at the exhibit's opening, a fact which Herath calls a fair compromise.
Yossiffon compared Tuohey's work to Seurat, describing her vision as "a dream world which is based on her inner reality and her dilemma to conform or not conform to the real world." Yossiffon decried the removal of "Butterfly," saying, "On behalf of all the people in America who believe in freedom of speech and freedom of expression, I extend my apologies to Ms. Tuohey for the insult she has suffered here."
Tuohey is considering taking legal action, not for financial gain but to make a point. She has consulted with the ACLU and a team of lawyers with the non-profit organization, Lawyers for the Creative Arts, to explore her options.
"They put a painting up and then they took it down, which bothers me a lot," said William Rattner, the executive director of Lawyers for the Creative Arts. "The painting is inoffensive, I don't think it carries any political message. And even if it did, it shouldn't have been taken down."
Attorney Scott Hodes, who has represented Christo and Jeanne Claude, Jim Rosenquist, Arman and other luminary artists for many years, said that while Tuohey has a clear-cut case ideologically a legal victory might be harder. "There is no question that she was wronged," said Hodes. "But the work was not destroyed, so there would be no claim for that. It would be a civil rights type lawsuit which has a lot of gray areas. Was there damage to her reputation? It would be an uphill battle to prove any damages in court."
Hodes compared the incident to the removal of the Harold Washington painting. "That was similar to what happened here in that lay people were using their judgment as to what is inflammatory." He added that, "The question of morality and what constitutes obscenity depends on the community in which the work is displayed. It's a different story whether you are in New York or L.A. or in the Bible Belt."
Tuohey pointed out that given the down state location of the fair, the sight of an umbilical cord should have been no big deal. "Kids down there are used to seeing animals born all the time," she said. "My own daughter (now 7) doesn't think it's weird or offensive. She can't understand why they took it down."
Kari Lydersen is a reporter at the Washington Post Chicago bureau and also serves as associate editor at Streetwise newspaper.