Sunday, February 18, 2007

"Footprints" portrait hagiography or not? You decide

I was giving the Brooklyn Public Library the benefit of the doubt, but in today's New York Times, in a City section article headlined An Exhibition Notable for What’s Not There, the library explains why the large portrait of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn spokesman Daniel Goldstein was cut from the "Brooklyn Footprints" exhibition re-mounted at the library.

No, the issue wasn't space (an explanation that might be plausible). Rather, reports freelancer Paul Berger:
Jay Kaplan, director of the library’s programs and exhibitions, said the institution’s role is to document what is taking place in Brooklyn, not to provide a platform for advocacy. He called the rejected painting of Mr. Goldstein “hagiographic” and the arena-as-toilet-bowl a “political cartoon.”

“The library doesn’t take positions on issues currently being decided,” Mr. Kaplan said. “That’s not censorship. That’s just a mission statement.”


I know and respect Kaplan--he hired me twice for projects five years ago--but that explanation doesn't make sense. As I wrote , documentation inevitably intertwines with advocacy.

Hagiography?

As for hagiography (worshipful or idealizing), that's a stretch. I'm no art critic, but I think painter Sarah Sagarin did a good job in suggesting that Goldstein is resolute, but somewhat isolated; the red background suggests an absense of calm, appropriate for someone who's fighting the potential loss of his home via eminent domain.

Effective hagiography would've added some other elements. I searched the web for a portrait others deemed hagiographic and found the above depiction of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin looming over tanks (or just vehicles?), on the Gendercide site.

I'm not sure Belle Benfield’s portrait of Victoria (Mary) Harmon, which appears opposite the introductory panel for the show, is any more (or less) hagiographic than Sagarin's Goldstein piece.

What to collect

Because the prime mission of libraries is not to show art but to collect books and other materials to be lent, there's little codification of standards regarding selection of art. And visuals available to the public at large are different from the content of books that individuals choose to peruse.

(Update: I should have been much more specific. While the Brooklyn Public Library does not have an explicit policy regarding exhibits, the American Library Association offers an interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights, which most libraries endorse, that says:
Libraries should not shrink from developing exhibits because of controversial content or because of the beliefs or affiliations of those whose work is represented. Just as libraries do not endorse the viewpoints of those whose work is represented in their collections, libraries also do not endorse the beliefs or viewpoints of topics that may be the subject of library exhibits.)

Still, it's worth noting that one objective of the Brooklyn Public Library's materials selection policy is to "provide access to a variety of opinions on matters of current interest and encourage freedom of expression."

It would seem that the library would inevitably purchase a book that collected all the art in the Brooklyn Footprints exhibition.

What's missing

The Times article summarizes the controversy, but doesn't (because of space?) connect the dots to explain that Atlantic Yards opponents have charged that the library's caution derives from a fear of offending Forest City Ratner, a potential donor. (Update: A reader suggests that, if the library really were concerned about the developer, it wouldn't have mounted the exhibition in the first place.)

Nor does it delve into the inherent difficulty of separating documentation from advocacy, given the unexplained back story behind many of the works, as I pointed out. Still, it does point out that one piece, by Aisha Cousins, suggests that homes are about to be gobbled up--a bit of a political cartoon in itself.

What to cover

While the coverage today is legitimate, it prompts the conclusion that, if a resident of New York City only read the Times, the person wouldn't know that the city had more than doubled its planned contribution to the Atlantic Yards project nor that a highly contested hearing had been held in the potentially groundbreaking eminent domain case regarding the project.

Sure, the City section is assigned to freelancers, and has a different allotment of space and topics, so we can't expect that section to cover what should've been in the Metro section.

Still, the Times is supposed to be the Paper of Record. On Atlantic Yards, readers will have to go to the web, including my blog, NoLandGrab, and other organizational and governmental sites.

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