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More Answers in MOCA Mural Censorship [UPDATE 4]

A street art work by an anonymous artist affiliated with iGreen in Los Angeles in response to Deitch's censorship of a mural by Blu at LA MOCA. (via WoosterCollective.com)

Some clear answers are finally surfacing after a week of the LA MOCA controversy. Recently an email between the censored street artist Blu and renowned graffiti photographer Henry Chalfant has been posted online. Blu has confirmed to me via email that the text is real, and Chalfant has said he will provide his comments on the situation this afternoon.

The email reveals that MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch did not request or see any preliminary sketches for Blu’s mural, and that when Blu arrived in LA almost “everyone” was in Miami during the annual art fairs.

After Deitch decided to erase the mural, the two met for dinner and:

had a very gentle conversation in wich [sic] he asked me to paint another piece on the same wall, suggesting he would have preferred a piece that ‘invites people to come in the museum’. I told him that i will not to do that, for obvious reasons, and that probably I was not the artist best suited for this task.

The museum then proceeded to whitewash the mural without informing the artist, who learned of the whitewashing through a local blogger. When Blu returned to Italy, he was barraged by requests from journalists for interviews, and his inbox included:

… an email from Deitch, in which he asked me to ‘sign’ a press release, explaining the motivation of the cancellation in order to calm down the censorship accusation.

Blu also reveals that “during my short experience painting that piece I talked to many people, including some war veterans, who understood the piece in a completely opposite way. With my big surprise they liked the mural, founding [sic] it truthful.”

Perhaps one of the most interesting facts in the email is that Blu has yet to be paid for his work on the mural. Blu also mentions that “Now some people (mostly people related with L.A.MOCA or Jeffrey Deitch) claim this is not censorship but a ‘curatorial choice’.” But the artist makes it clear that he disagrees with the elimination of the word “censorship” from the discussion.

Left, a photo of Diego Rivera's now destroyed "Man at the Crossroads" in progress at Rockefeller Center, New York (c.1933) (image via pbs.org). Right, a photo of Blu's MOCA mural being destroyed. (image by Casey Caplowe, via Unurth) (click to enlarge)

Many people have mentioned to me the striking similarities between the Blu/MOCA incident and the infamous incident of Diego Rivera’s controversial 1933 Rockefeller mural, which was destroyed by industrialist Nelson Rockefeller, who made the decision after an outcry about the depiction of Lenin. But there are important differences in the two cases, as unlike Rivera’s Rockefeller mural, Blu’s mural did not have any complaints, did not garner protests, and the artist has not been paid for his work.

"Supreme {ARTS} Leader" paste-up from the iGreen Facebook page. The light-ness of the paste-up suggests that this particular image has either been Photoshop'd to highlight the image or there was a source of light not visible in this photo. (via Facebook)

The photo at the top of this post was posted on Wooster Collective today, though it was also posted on iGreen’s Facebook page in an album titled “Supreme {Arts} Leader,” and is a street art response by the Los Angeles art group iGreen (thanks AnimalNY!) who depicts Jeffrety Deitch as an Iranian Ayatollah with a paint roller in his hands standing in front of the now destroyed Blu mural. The message is clear.

UPDATE: The LA Times‘s Culture Monster has more about the anonymous street artist on their blog.

The following is Blu’s full email to Chalfant, which I am not linking to as various personal emails are listed:

Dear Henry
thanks for your interest and sorry for the late reply

the situation is a bit complex, but i am used to it,
sometimes I encounter problems because of the strong content of my pieces
The only thing I can say is that I wasn’t expecting to be censored in “real-time” by MOCA

how do we came to this point?
the story is short:

1. I was invited by Deitch to paint the museum wall

2. I proposed him to work on my piece early this month because it was the only time I could have come to LA before the opening of “art in the streets”, next April.
I also asked to be payed for my work and to take an assistant from Italy to help me out.

3. Deitch said the time was ok and that the fee was approved,
I have not received any requests regarding preliminar sketches,
However I usually tend not to send sketches for approval, assuming that whoever invites me should know my work.
[ http://goo.gl/qnsGO ] [ http://goo.gl/WD4JD ]
[ http://goo.gl/0BQgi ] [ http://goo.gl/Fknwy ]

4. I flew to L.A. to paint the piece. In those days almost everyone, Deitch included, was in Miami for the art fair

5. I spent 6 days painting the piece. When Deitch came back from Miami I was still at the wall, drawing dollar bills.

6. He looked at the piece, and he found it offensive so he decided to erase it but he would let me finish it, at that point I had just finished sketching the dollar bills: the piece was already understandable but not completed. Knowing what was going to happen to my mural the following day, I didn’t feel motivated to spend more time on it. so i left the piece like that.

7. The day after Deitch invited me for dinner. We had a very gentle conversation in wich he asked me to paint another piece on the same wall, suggesting he would have preferred a piece that ‘invites people to come in the museum’.I told him that i will not to do that, for obvious reasons, and that probably I was not the artist best suited for this task.

8. the following day, early in the morning a L.A. blogger informed me that the piece was being erased by some workers. I went there to take some photos. Some people were already there documenting the event. The internet buzz was started before I realized the piece was being cancelled.

9. On Friday I was leaving LA, so I asked about the payment (i was there with an assistant, painting 10 hours a day for 6 days) and then things became unclear. Today I still don’t know if my work, after being erased, will be payed as agreed.

10. As soon as i got back home i found my inbox full of requests from journalists, asking for interviews
I also received an email from Deitch, in which he asked me to ‘sign’ a press release, explaining the motivation of the cancellation in order to calm down the censorship accusation.
I explained him that i will not sign that document because obviously I don’t agree with the cancellation of my piece.
Signing it would have meant technically ‘self-censorship.’
He told me his motivations. I understood his interpretation of the piece but that was his personal choice.

Now just to be clear:

My piece was not done to offend anyone, neither MOCA, Deitch, or any war veteran.
I was sincerely trying to do one of my best pieces and I would have been glad to spend a more days on that wall, touching up and finishing all the remaining details, to make it better.
I often paint strong subjects but always leaving
the interpretation open to the viewer and this may generate discussions.
People’s reaction is the most interesting thing for me.
To see this piece as ‘offensive’ was his personal interpretation,
not the only possible interpretation,
Deitch saw it like that and he took the decision to erase it,
without having received any official complain from anyone.
Now I am not angry with anyone, but this doesn’t mean i support the censorship of my piece
and I don’t want to take part in that decision: doing that would deny the whole idea of my work.

I can also say that during my short experience painting that piece I talked to many people, including some war veterans, who understood the piece in a completely opposite way. With my big surprise they liked the mural, founding it truthful.
This one, like many other different interpretations, appeared in several internet sites immediately after the cancellation.
I found this debate really interesting.

That said, I have no problem justifying my work, but now there is no more mural to speak about, and my personal position is just to step back and watch the reactions.

one final note:

As i said i am not angry, but I like to call things with their right name.
Now some people (mostly people related with L.A.MOCA or Jeffrey Deitch) claim this is not censorship but a “curatorial choice”.

The wikipedia definition of this word reads:
“Censorship is suppression of speech or other communication which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or inconvenient to the general body of people as determined by a government, media outlet, or other controlling body”

this sounds familiar to me

that’s all
thank you

ciao
blu

We will certainly attempt to follow up with LA MOCA to see their reaction to Blu’s email.

UPDATE 2: As of Friday night, LA MOCA has not returned numerous phone calls of inquiry.

UPDATE 3: MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch tells the LA Times Culture Monster blog that he personally wired artist Blu 10,000 euros ($7,582.00), though I think the LA Times blog may have made a mistake since 10,000 euros is the equivalent to roughly $13,175 US dollars (roughly $13,100). “I would not normally disclose this, but since Blu brought up the fee, it is best to be transparent,” Deitch told the blog in writing (we assume email).

UPDATE 4: Henry Chalfant provided the following comment on the email on Tuesday, December 21, 2010:

When I first heard about MOCA buffing Blu’s mural I was incredulous and angry. Since then I’ve gotten a more nuanced view of the situation. I understand and accept Jeffrey Deitch’s explanation of the circumstances that led to the mural’s destruction. It was a curatorial error not to have communicated to the artist the nature of the wall’s location before it was painted, but MOCA couldn’t have left the mural there as an affront to the community who considered it sacred ground, and who, in no way, were the deserving targets for the mural’s powerful message. With street art, context is all important. I would have loved to see the mural in front of the offices of Halliburton-KBR or on Wall Street, for America’s war profiteers to see. For everyone involved, it is a great sadness that this work of art by a brilliant artist has been destroyed. I do not easily accept its destruction. But think of this. Losing the mural is sad enough and that misfortune will be compounded if the street art exhibition is canceled because the artists drop out to express their outrage. That would be self-defeating.
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