My first show in 2015 is participation in a group show at Works/San Jose, a community art center in downtown San Jose, CA. This is my inaugural showing in San Jose, CA. I honestly cannot recall the reason it has taken so long for me to have a show in San Jose, because it is one cool city. I used to come here yearly for Game Developers Conference and I always visited their modern museum of art which never failed me with a brilliant show.
Don’t Draw That: réspondez s’il vous plait is a group show at Works/San Jose gallery with a wide variety of work that responds to the recent events—including the murder of artists by terrorists in Paris, and the calls from many in reaction, including from some world leaders, for artists not to create provocative work on religion or other subjects that might offend—have spurred a wide range of responses from creative individuals and communities. The show includes work that touches the subject across all lines and pain points.
One of the art works I have in this show is a painting I did in 2009 titled “Jihadi Martyr in the Golden Pussy of Heaven.” I am not placing an image of it here, as I wish for patrons to attend and see it in person (March 6th – 21st, 2015). However I did wish to take the opportunity to write a few words on my thoughts about my participation in this exhibition. The painting in question is a classic example of my influences from religious art, cartoons, and Mad magazine style satire. This work was originally part of a series called “Die for Allah.” It was a defiant reaction to Islamic extremists attacks on innocent people. There were 5 paintings which displayed images that were satirical views of what some people, may consider to be absurdities of extremists interpretations of the Islamic faith i.e. promises of paradise for killing innocent people, virgins to tend to the sexual desires of martyrs, …etc.
This series of work was shown in a gallery exhibition and then posted on my web site. A few years later, I submitted a proposal to a contemporary art space in another state for a completely different series of paintings. I was told that the curatorial committee was interested in my show but saw the “Die For Allah” works on my web site and decided to decline my proposal. Their decision was based on the idea that they felt that the “Die For Allah” series would be viewed by their patrons and their association with me would jeopardize the art centers funding and make them a target for Muslims who would be offended that they were displaying my work.
I was quite irritated that they were judging my proposal on work that wasn’t even part of my proposed show – in addition I felt they were spineless and self censoring their program out of misdirected assumptions and fear. On the other hand, it was their decision and they have the right to display work that fits within the framework and guidelines of their program. This is their Free Speech and I respect and support that fully.
I believe, as many artist do, in exercising my right to Free Speech and defending it for others whether I agree with their viewpoint, find them offensive, or otherwise valueless. Free Speech at all costs is a tight rope and delivers a challenge to a society in global multicultural system. Dialogue and tolerance are paramount. In addition there is still the possibility that you may cause offense…that is the price we pay.
For my part I must declare, I don’t feel the same way I felt, when I first painted “Jihadi Martyr in the Golden Pussy of Heaven.” It’s not that I think the painting has lost its impact or that the satire is wrong in anyway. Many things like religion have an inherent power, and power always corrupts. For this reason we must allow for them to be criticized, otherwise we will be overcome by them with the establishment of institutionalized oppression. Now at the time I made this painting my motivation was fueled by a need to react against the actions of extremists by exercising my right to satirize their actions and religious beliefs, and this painting does just that – it very poignantly takes a comical jab at Muslim extremists who feel that it is their mission to kill those who don’t agree or live by their standards. The political statement behind the works very strongly raises the flag of opposition to any group who would use violence, coercion, threats or murder to limit Free Speech in a free society.
In retrospect, I see that the deeper devilish danger threatening Free Speech is not the actions of extremists. For ultimately their impact is shallow against nations who have liberty embedded in their constitutions and culture. Au contraire, the real threat is the reactions of democratic governments who use the actions of extremists, taken against artists, to pass legislation that usurps the very freedoms for which artists use to create art.
Post Charlie Hebdo, there was a call for more police power and surveillance. The Orwellian lie was repeated by media outlets, that we need to be protected from extremists and the only way is to allow government to remove more of our freedoms. Democratized governments are increasingly turning their eye toward their citizens and using the actions of extremists as justification for building a police state and increasing reductions of privacy and the deterioration of personal freedoms. The Snowden revelations are concrete evidence of this direction coupled with politicians loudly parroting the message “We need the power to listen in to conversations, we need the power for home searches, we need the power to comb internet records…”
This all pales the threat from extremists on the soil of democratic nations. My goal in writing this, is not to diminish the lives of the artists in Paris or any others who have suffered at the hands of extremists for exercising Freedom of Speech, without doubt this is tragic. I only now realize that perhaps I didn’t tell the whole story.
Perhaps, my painting didn’t go far enough…perhaps it should have included elements that detail how democratic governments are stealing the freedoms of citizens and using Muslim extremists as an excuse to rob us of our Free Speech, privacy and personal rights. For that would have been more accurate in focusing on the real danger from the Hebdo murders.
As an artist, the final act of creation is displaying your work to the public. This is the moment when what you have created becomes a permanent part of the cultural landscape. I am a fan of satire and my work has always had humorous elements. Much of my art has been an exercise in button pushing. When you see “Jihadi Martyr in the Golden Pussy of Heaven,” you will either love it or hate it. Some people have viewed it and thought is was in poor taste, and others have seen it, and laughed uncontrollably! Ultimately, I hope that this art work creates a dialogue that encourages viewers to explore the complex Free Speech issues we are faced with.
To other artists I say, express yourself to the fullest and use your tools freely but examine what you have wrought. Examine it closely, because there are many who will use it to fulfill their purpose and it may very well be the undoing of your freedom to create.