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More Answers in MOCA Mural Censorship [UPDATE 4]

by Hrag Vartanian on December 17, 2010

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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  • Michelle Vaughan

    No drawings. If Deitch wanted a mural to “welcome visitors” obvs. that should have been made clear from the beginning. Especially since, as Mark Schiller from Wooster Collective has pointed out, Deitch was familiar with Blu’s work. So familiar he didn’t even ask for drawings. However, even if he had – it sounds like Blu would have pushed for his own vision. His original mural was in the spirit of what much of street art stands for, a political statement. Again, I wrestle with museums commissioning street artists to make an edgy public piece so they look fresh/cool, when underneath MOCA wanted something standard and unoffensive. Deitch having his cake and eating it too.

    • Will Brand

      Speaking of simultaneous cake eating and having, why doesn’t Blu just tag MoCA? You get your work up, you regain whatever cred you lost by accepting a major museum commission, and you put Deitch on the spot much more effectively vis-a-vis his tolerance for transgressive street art immediately in advance of his street art show. I’d support that wholeheartedly.

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  • Will Brand

    Points 6 and 8 are pretty obviously contradictory, no? “Knowing what was going to happen to my mural the following day, [he] didn’t feel motivated to spend more time on it,” but in the morning he needed a blogger to inform him the piece was being erased and “the internet buzz was started before [he] realized the piece was being cancelled”? Huh? I was never convinced this was censorship, but Blu’s incoherent, nonsensical statements over the past few days haven’t helped him any. I mean, that in particular comes off as the sort of “Oh, it sucks? Well, I never cared anyway so whatevs” bullshit I pulled when I was 16.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      I don’t see the contradiction here. The artist was obviously expecting to be able to take photos of his work, which is normal for street artists, and was caught by surprise that he wasn’t even given that opportunity. Will, I think you should be more up front about hating the mural in general and Blu’s work in particuarly.

      • Will Brand

        Sure: I hate the mural, and I think more generally that Blu’s recent habit of traveling around the world like some sort of street art Batman, saving countries from themselves with a big mural and a dubious understanding of the universe, is no less despicable than the version practiced by the US over the past thirty years. The conclusion I come to when seeing something like his machine-gun mural in Bogota is that he thinks Colombian artists can’t handle criticizing their own political system, so he’s going to manufacture a connection to the country and come lend a hand. I don’t think that’s a valuable contribution. (And, to respond to Janedoe’s comments on my treatment of Blu’s English, I think it’s reasonable to bring up the inability of someone attempting serious political commentary on our country to speak effectively in the language of our country.

        That said, I’m willing to buy some of what you’re saying – that he expected the work to be up at least a little longer. How long do half-finished, inflammatory, obviously-unwanted murals usually stay up? Was this not covered during his dinner with Deitch? He can’t figure out that museum maintenance staff probably work 9-5, and probably get started pretty quickly on extraordinarily public tasks handed down straight from the director?

        Don’t get me wrong, Deitch is looking pretty terrible from all of this too; not least in that he clearly hasn’t become any better at organization than he was at Deitch Projects. He somehow avoided leveraging any of the collected knowledge present at MoCA about how to do these things, somehow avoided communicating efficiently with an artist he’d worked with before on a very similar project (the one out in LIC), and somehow avoided finding a time – any time – within the next four months when he and Blu could have been in LA together. He messed up, bad. But he’s not evil.

        Additionally, we know that Deitch had the work documented for the catalog, so it’s not as though Blu has been denied any lasting record.

        • Xylo

          “is no less despicable than the version practiced by the US over the past thirty years.”

          Are you seriously comparing the painting of murals with something like the Iraq war?

          • Will Brand

            Yes. What’s wrong with that? It’s hard to kill as many people with a mural as with a huge military-industrial complex, but the sensibilities behind the two acts are similar; I think that’s pretty clear. It’s entirely okay to compare, say, biennial culture with Western colonialism, and they’re hardly on the same scale. This is something that occurs in the course of making points.

        • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

          You are making an argument for no political art outside of one’s own national bubble? Street art is a global movement and Blu is a citizen of the world. All art is universal or aspires to be to some degree, so I don’t see the problem with his interest in addressing issues around the world.

          And I don’t think it is reasonable to expect his English to be perfect, and I actually think that it is an anti-immigrant and xenophobic attitude on your part … I’m assuming that English is your first language.

          If fact, LA is half Spanish-speaking, but large chunks also speak other languages as first languages and not to mention that government services are offered in many many languages. I think having that English expectations mean that you will be increasingly be talking to people like yourself. I prefer diversity that includes people from different linguistic traditions, educational backgrounds, and economic positions, some of whom will not have strong English skills.

          In terms of the whitewashing without giving Blu a heads up, I think it just shows how disorganized MOCA was in terms of this project throughout the process (even after the censorship).

          I also don’t think the documentation is any solace, it seems like a trade off — maybe a political decision — as the result of a bad situation.

          • Will Brand

            Most news outlets in the United States are in English; most political commentary in the United States is in English; the vast, vast majority of information Blu could have gathered about the political discourse about the war, as it exists in L.A., would have been published or otherwise produced in English. It stands to reason that not being fluent in English would make you worse at adding something novel and constructive to the discussion. That’s not xenophobic; that’s the same reason I’m not very well-qualified to speak on the topic of French poetry or Serbian film.

            The point here, though, isn’t really exclusively language or nationality. The point is that this image feels like one we’ve seen before – not in a hurf durf zeitgeist way, but in a trite way – and I think Blu would not have produced such a trite image if his practice involved spending more time investigating exactly what it is he wanted to address. I trust Noam Chomsky to have a useful opinion about East Timor because he spent years and years of his life looking into it, full-time. I don’t have a similar opinion of Blu’s investment in American political discussion, and I certainly don’t think that the particular subject matter – dead soldiers returning home – is a global one. The war is a global issue; our dead are our own, and I fail to see why Blu should have anything worthwhile to say about that particularly American experience we’re dealing with right now.

          • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

            I disagree, a critique of imperial power does not have to be in the language of the imperial power. That is a case for assimilation, which I do not agree with. Also, you are judging a leaked email as if it was a published book of essays or something. This email was to a friend. If I combed through your tweets I’m sure I could find some doozies.

          • Will Brand

            Blu isn’t having some sort of divine wisdom passed down to him; he’s entering a field – yes, a field of critique of imperial power – which is already exceptionally well-developed, and in which a huge number of writers and artists have been practicing for a very long time. It doesn’t make any sense to act as though his familiarity with that tradition doesn’t affect the quality of his commentary, as though by virtue of his ‘artist’ title he’s entirely removed from the sort of criticism we’d use against academics or authors producing similar work.

            Further, the visual language one would use to discuss imperial power is one of tanks and foreign casualties, not one of American dead. It’s the wrong image – not in the sense of being incendiary, but in the sense of not being the most succinct and powerful way of expressing yourself. If that was Blu’s intention, the work is even worse.

          • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

            Will, I’d suggest you read the essays in Le Monde Diplomatique, which always publishes excellent essays on the topic of American power and diplomacy, which are ready by political scientists, academics, and diplomats the world over, that is if you read French. You must read French, right?

            Btw, you are still only fixating on the military, the mural, as he says is about more than one definition. I think it is as much about economic power as military. Street art uses the most direct form of communication and evokes emotions, that’s what it does well, as you can see it has done it here too.

            The bottom line for me is that I really worry about MOCA’s street art show.

          • Will Brand

            Of course there are exceptions to everything; I never denied that and heck, I like some of Blu’s work.

            The best way of expressing something about economic power would be, say, having the dollars inside, rather than atop, the coffins. Or maybe something like the dollar-shark mural he put up… somewhere. Mexico? You mention street art using “the most direct form of communication”, but by your reasoning that’s not what’s happening here; according to you, Blu is saying “apple” to mean “orange”. If we’re to go by my (and most people’s) interpretation, it’s crass, trite, and consequently insufficiently aware of the discourse it enters. If we’re to go by yours, it’s an inexact visual expression of a political thought we have no evidence of the existence of. Either way, I wouldn’t want it on my (museum) wall.

            Edit: Also, yes, I do read French. You’re well informed.

          • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

            I don’t agree. He is being blatant while insinuating something else. I think you shouldn’t generalize about most people’s interpretation because you have no statistics to prove that … the AFC facebook page is hardly a good indication. Either way, there are many meanings but the message is clear it is an American death. Also, I think you underestimate how these murals are supposed to be read in cars and other places as much as you would read it in a museum or gallery context. I completely disagree with you that it is trite and crass. And there’s no evidence your opinion on this is more accurate than mine … it is a subjective decision.

            I think the mural is quite good and powerful, if there are technical issues, I think he’s already addressed why that is. Knowing his other work, you’ll know how his work tends to look in terms of finish. I look forward to your response to my piece that I will publish on Monday on the art historical context of the piece.

          • Xylo

            @hrag, I wouldn’t even say that it’s necessarily an American death. For me the message is universal. The fact that the currency used happens to be dollars is incidental, and I agree there are also many other more subtle and interesting interpretations than just jumping at the most obvious one.

            @Will Brand, To hear the act of painting murals being directly equated with the practice of war crimes, torture etc. is absurd beyond belief and trivialises the suffering of millions of people. Quite a disgusting and childish statement in fact, that leaves you with no credibility as far as I’m concerned.

            Plus, the references to the artist’s grasp of English reminded me of a racist bus driver I encountered on a visit to the U.S, who turned red with anger and started screaming “SPEAK ENGLISH!!!” and “ARE YOU AN AMERICAN CITIZEN???” at the top of his voice and right into the face of a Mexican man who had dared to timidly ask “Aqui?” when trying to find out where to queue in the bus station.

    • Janedoe

      That is what you got from the whole letter, and this incredibly complex ethically layered situation? His non precise grammar and language barrier toward specificity is what annoyed you about this circumstance, really? It is pretty clear he was not saying he didn’t know the piece was “coming down”. Surely, we can deduce through his non precise grammar that, he was saying, he didn’t know the “actual minute” it would be coming down (Absolutely aware it was next day, but uninformed by MoCa or Deitch about the “exact moment”). No?

      • Will Brand

        Actually, not from this letter; he mentioned deciding not to complete it in a previous blog post. I’ve been following this pretty closely, and the bits about payment and not usually sending sketches are the only new pieces of information here – i.e., the only bits to ‘get’ from the letter.

        • Janedoe

          “Will Brand” are you “Jeffrey Deitch” or perhaps MoCa staff or PR person paid by either? You sure are spending a whole heck of time and energy kicking up dust in this comments section…

  • Den Hickey

    If Jeffrey Bietch hasn’t payed up yet… you better start looking for a lawyer.

    • Janedoe

      You bet your arse Deitch made a sudden payment in full, and it came out of his own pocket; about 5seconds after Blu’s letter went viral. [Culture Monster article, December 18, 8am] http://lat.ms/dUsDI2

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  • O Ayyuce

    that is not an Iranian Ayatollah, he is like Pope!

  • O Ayyuce
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  • lola

    put your dink away will brand

  • Bill

    So what.

  • Nabis Studio

    I think Will Brand is not able to distinguish things clearly. He’s defending some kind of sacred truth someone (he doesn’t know who or what) inculcated inside him

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  • Anonymous

    i don’t agree with @will brand’s view, but i applaud the way he argues his perspective. that’s what art discussion should be. any discussion. that back and forth between WB and @hrag was nice. i applaud you both.

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  • 20SICK

    i’m with @will brand on a few things, the batman comment in particular. i don’t like the mural either, but to me, politics, industrial war machines, etc is all complete rubbish, burroughs said the only way to combat it all was complete noncompliance, “deprived of the vampiric energy they suck off their constituants, politicians will be revealed as dead empty masses hiding behind their computers ; and what’s behind those computers? remote controls of course” anyway, i woulda white washed it for being uninteresting, too literal, and in no way open to interpretation, mural as newspaper headline, single layer of meaning, very shallow , blunt, simple message. i like his time lapse cartoons with david ellis better.

  • i never liked science

    the only thing i find offensive is the banality of the image and message. wow, *did you KNOW that war kills people, and is good for the economy?* learned that damned nonsense in high school.

    “if hip-hop used to be the black peoples’ cnn, now it’s more home shopping channel.”

  • Iamhieronymus

    Nice reference to Rivera. i said the same thing actually, to vandalog.
    Not a fan of the typical American thing to do, which is sue people, but in this case yes.
    Put a plan together for something positive for the money to be used for, say like a graff exhibition for and by graff artists, or a new mural placement in the face of this event.

    sue the bonkers out of ‘em—Out of principle, right and so on and so fo…… .

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