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A photography exhibit at the S.F. Art Institute sparks a censorship debate

Wednesday, Dec 20 1995
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Art student Pamela Buchwald was looking for a reaction with the 10 self-portraits she shot for an exhibit at the San Francisco Art Institute's Diego Rivera Gallery. She photographed her own butt smeared with hair and mud. In another photo, she appeared with a bright yellow Star of David painted on her furry pubic hair. If those two shots weren't enough to raise hackles, the third was: a Hebrew National salami buried in Buchwald's vagina.

Even so, the 22-year-old senior had aesthetic doubts about her show that went up at the student-run gallery over the weekend of Oct. 21.

"I was worried that I would be chided because that kind of work has been done before by a whole slew of artists in the '70s," she says. "I mean these are all issues that have been done before."

Buchwald got the reaction she was looking for when weekend gallerygoers, many of them tourists who visit the gallery to view its world-famous Diego Rivera mural, complained about her work. On Oct. 24, Student Activities Coordinator Yasmin Lambie relayed the complaints to the administration, and at President Ella King Torrey's behest, Lambie asked Buchwald if she would post an advisory warning outside the gallery and write an artist's statement justifying the photographs.

The exhibit -- and the administration's reaction -- sparked a vituperative debate between Art Institute students and administrators over censorship, the meaning of advisory warnings, and students' duties to their own artistic development, a debate that is still rocking the school as the semester ends.

"I don't have a clear understanding of why the show pushed so many buttons," says Coordinator Lambie, who supports Buchwald's work. "The minute you walk through the doors here, your eyes, your ears, your whole senses are questioned, tested, and pushed. That is the nature of the Art Institute."

Buchwald, who wanted the work to "speak for itself," refused to comply with the administration's requests and immediately penned a one-page memo belittling the Art Institute for kowtowing to the public; she distributed the missive to the school's 600 students and 90 faculty members. Under the heading "Censorship," she wrote:

"I find it appalling that even here, at an institution whose ultimate objective is to foster freedom of creative expression, the administration has chosen to be so narrow-minded as to bow to the demands of the public."

Buchwald's memo scolded the views of Donna Lantz, one of her instructors, who told her that the issue wasn't the self-portraits, but a question of the Diego Rivera Gallery's responsibilities to the public.

"In terms of the Art Institute, if someone is not comfortable they do not look. They walk away," says Lantz. "But because the Diego is a public space, the lines are somewhat fuzzier."

The student co-directors of the gallery, Steven W. Kopp and Heather Haynes, backed Buchwald. Kopp rejected King Torrey's demands, telling the administration that he would thwart any attempt to place warning signs on the gallery. Kopp points out that the Diego regularly presents confrontational and explicit work, and cites a painting that was exhibited in the Diego just two weeks before Buchwald's show that depicted a woman masturbating. That show caused nary a peep.

"I felt that by singling [Buchwald] out that it privileged the other works that have been at the Diego," says Kopp. "I don't know if I would call it censorship, but I would call it a value judgment."

Buchwald says posting "explanations" would detract from the artistic punch of the photographs.

"I was trying to shock the viewer, and in that respect I guess the show was successful," she says. "But to write a statement explaining how I was shocking them seemed silly, redundant, and ridiculous. It would ruin the work."

Kopp agrees with Buchwald, saying that text always falls prey to the "intentionality fallacy," essentially the idea that because of the variety of viewers' interpretations, a text can never be an authoritative document.

"There is a rich tradition in modernism of letting work speak for itself, so I asked why it was so important to mandate a statement of intent," says Kopp.

Gallery co-director Haynes speculates that the fracas may have more to do with timing than content.

"I think that someone from the board of trustees was offended by the gallery," says Haynes.

Indeed, members of the Art Institute's board of trustees were on hand for their monthly meeting on Oct. 26, which coincided with the gallery fracas. But President King Torrey dismisses Haynes' suggestion as laughable.

"The fact that the board was on campus, members of which were asking me what this show was about, was not at all what this is about," King Torrey says. "This is about artists controlling interpretation of their work."

Donal Veilleux, the graduate student representative to the board of trustees, says Buchwald's show was not mentioned at the board meeting, but agrees that the timing could have influenced King Torrey's requests.

"This is not an issue of censorship but one of regulatory control," says Veilleux. "Regulatory control doesn't make art palatable, but understood by the higher art world, like the board of trustees."

King Torrey possesses impeccable anti-censorship credentials as a board member of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, a Seattle, Wash., group that represents artists such as Karen Finley.

King Torrey also points out that the students won because Buchwald was never censored and the warning was never posted.

"[Buchwald's] work was getting better, it was much stronger," King Torrey says. "In gaining impact, a lot of the neighborhood folks were surprised that the work in the gallery was not for their 5-year-old. So I asked if we had a policy to get better signs for the entire school."

As passions boiled over, King Torrey asked co-directors Haynes and Kopp to attend a meeting about gallery policy. Haynes declined to participate in any meeting that didn't include the student body, and circulated a petition that drew hundreds of signatures protesting the "closed-door meeting" and demanding a schoolwide parley in the lecture hall.

The gallery policy meeting was scrubbed, with King Torrey saying that it was never her intention to shut doors. "We are not reluctant to talk about any issues. That meeting was ostensibly about how we are going to better present the school and the galleries," she says.

A schoolwide meeting was convened on Nov. 2, with an estimated 75 students and faculty members attending. There, Haynes pushed King Torrey to promise that warning signs, or "intent statements," would not become mandatory for artists exhibiting in the Diego. King Torrey complied, then opened the meeting to student complaints.

King Torrey came to the Art Institute a year ago from the Philadelphia-based Pew Fellowships in the Arts, where she was director and an ace fund-raiser. Hired in part for her fund-raising prowess, her anniversary continues to draw criticism from students and administrators alike who fret over her corporate-friendly style.

"The president's new job is to make the school palatable to big business," says a former Art Institute administrator who asked for anonymity. "As money for the arts from Washington and Sacramento is drying up, the arts are having to beg for money from corporate benefactors -- they don't want to give money to a flaky bohemian school in North Beach. What's going on at the Art Institute is no different from what is going on in the art world at large."

"That's probably what [Buchwald] was up against," the former administrator continues. "The board was on campus and it went against the grain of [King Torrey's] goals of making the school more palatable to wealthy donors."

King Torrey acknowledges that her position entails major fund-raising, but says that her job description also requires attention to the educational issues and ideals. She says that her requests were of educational intent "not in a censorious or puritanical way, but because the people associated with the Art Institute are deeply interested in what the artist is trying to accomplish."

Buchwald, who graduates this month, is satisfied with the brouhaha prompted by her exhibit.

"They're 10 self-portraits that are kind of tongue-in-cheek pornography. They were supposed to be funny," says Buchwald with a slight smirk. "People were looking for deep, hidden meanings that were not there. Really they're just one-liners.

About The Author

Jeff Stark

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