Here’s a typical Miami Beach imbroglio for you:
Toronto artist Franklin Sinanan put six paintings and one sculpture on display down at Miami Beach City Hall recently as part of Black History Month. (If the words City Hall raise a certain dissonance, they should.) Franklin’s had to go back twice now, to remove “inappropriate” pieces.
Raised in Canada by way of Trinidad, Franklin has channeled an Afro-Caribbean vibe since he moved here a couple of years ago. But some, fearing perceived “voodoo elements” in his work, have called him a witch doctor.
Suddenly we feel like we’ve stepped into an H. P. Lovecraft novel.
Seems that city officials, after initially approving the display for the fourth-floor public gallery, got a case of cold feet and asked Franklin to remove the Rituals sculpture after complaints from city staff.
Featuring votive candles, feathers, rope, baby dolls, skulls and crucifixes, the sculpture looks, well, “voodooish.” Franklin’s as perplexed as us over the need to cart it away. “Why should anyone take offense?” he asks. Why, indeed?
In the exhibition, Franklin replaced Rituals three days later with an abstract number entitled Rwanda. Let’s hope no Hutus are staff members!
And while nobody wants lupe-garoos running around the commission chamber, this is art we’re talking about!
For perspective, let’s consider that when Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ made the rounds a few years ago under the auspices of the NEA — you remember, it depicted a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s urine? — it was considered the highest of high art. Anyone who decried it could only be a barbarian or worse, and to make the point more clearly it won an “Awards in the Visual Arts” competition. Along with Mapplethorpe’s self-portrait featuring that strategically placed bullwhip, you’d think they’d cornered Beaux Arts photography. Now, if those pieces had been on display and “offended” city staff, would those photos have come down? How would that have played with the Miami Beach Gay Pride Festival? Funny how “freedom of expression” concerning the arts never seems to include anything that might offend a voting “community.”
As to the artists, why is nothing derogatory of Islam ever produced? After all, if Jesus can swim in pee, why not dress The Prophet, say, as the 73rd virgin? Is it because this kind of Pop Art might not be politically correct?
See, with art, the same piece deemed as individual expression can also be seen as pandering obscenity; truly, its essence lies in the eye of the beholder.
But is artwork even vaguely denoting religiosity to be spirited away in the dead of night from City Hall? Must anything decorated with raven feathers, skulls or votive candles bring out the weejums and hex signs? Where’s Papa Legba when we need him? And whatever happened to context?
Now for the shocker: Miami Beach officials refused to comment!
So let’s delve a little. According to Florida International University Constitutional Law Professor José Vilanova (as reported in The Lead March 5), “Any works of expression that are fully artistic in nature are covered under the ‘free exercise’ clause of the First Amendment. So, the government can display religious symbolism if there’s an expressly secular purpose, like an art exhibit. Where municipalities run into problems is when they financially sponsor some form of overt religious expression, like a manger scene during Christmas.”
There, isn’t that clear as Pluto on a cloudy night?
In this case, the professor states that City Hall can decide what they do and do not want on display — as long as no policy, “written or unwritten,” forbids religious-themed artwork or runs foul of the First Amendment.
Wait, it becomes slipperier — this is City Hall. There’s no mention of religious symbolism in the city charter, so what stays or goes is strictly ad hoc art critique. In other words, the policy du jour is subject to change.
Franklin’s work apparently isn’t frowned on only by City Hall boobirds. More than one aficionado has described it as “vodou.” So, what do these guardians of our local mores do during Art Basel? Surely, many more equally “offensive” pieces can be found there.
We’ve held the view for years that Miami Beach is an urban setting straightjacketed by suburban sensibilities. And like acid and oil on a madman’s face, reason tends to fly away. Eccentricities like these are especially pronounced by small, weird polar opposites; where else, do you think, are the merits of art argued based on voodoo content? Is it that we need to teach people more about art? Is the voodoo community lacking in political clout? Or do we just chalk it all up as more South Beach craziness? Probably the answer, like art itself, depends on the individual. But there are many interpretations.
We recall seeing the artist’s painting of a rooster awhile back. Even that was called offensive, with dark mutterings about Santeria and black magic. (Sheesh!) Might as well call it Kentucky Fried Voodoo. Franklin doesn’t know about all that, claiming his inspiration was — you guessed it! — Mr Clucky.
We can relate. We owned a rooster once named Mitchell that we kept in the backyard. Except for the early morning racket, he was the best pet we ever had. Of course, the neighbors took a dim view (despite our protestations that the noise was a sick cat), and Mitchell had to go. But here’s the thing: We can personally attest that at no time, at no point, ever, did we notice Mitchell mixed up in anything even remotely resembling voodoo. Not even a little.
Franklin rightly sees it as just art. “I just pull this stuff out of my head,” he says. “It’s all imagination.”
Art Gratis Artis, baby.