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Artist Victor M. Montanez on MOCA's Mural Controversy, Censorship and How Artists Help the Elite Censor Art & Culture

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A mural painted in Avondale, Chicago, that was later censored or whitewashed after a city official met with the owner of the building.
(Image by Corey Lewis)
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A mural painted in Avondale, Chicago, that was later censored or whitewashed after a city official met with the owner of the building. by Corey Lewis

* The following article is inspired by Chris Hedges' recent book "Death of the Liberal Class." Hedges' detailing of how art has been dismantled by the elites and how liberals have, in the past century, helped elites turn art and culture into something that is sterile and commercial--something used to suppress thought and prevent people from taking on injustice in their communities--should be considered further in a contemporary context. This will be the first in a long-running series of articles on art and culture in America.

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In the first part of December, an Italian street artist known as Blu painted an anti-war mural on the wall of the Geffen Contemporary Art building in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. The museum commissioned the work but then whitewashed it because it wanted to be "sensitive" to the nearby Veterans Affairs hospital or the Japanese American war memorial nearby. The mural was a painting of coffins draped in dollar bills.

Similarly, Chicago artist Victor M. Montanez, a lifelong artist who specializes in creating art that can create a context for culture and empower the masses, has faced whitewashing or outright censorship of art in Chicago that he has produced or created through collaboration with other artists. I spoke to him about the whitewashing of art that carries messages, which might be offensive to those in power.

"It's a systemic attack," explains Montanez. "[It's] an attack on the roots of creativity and self-expression. It's no coincidence that all of the educational systems across the country facing financial problem, the first thing that they do is cut art and music from the curriculum. In Chicago, four hundred art & music teachers were let go just recently."

He adds, the attacks are not just "on the surface of what we see when established artists get censored." Artists are asked to censor before they get started, while they get started (otherwise they risk losing funding), when faced with opportunities for promotion, etc.

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Montanez describes a recent and key incident of censorship, when he had young up-and-coming artists cooperate with him to paint a mural on a business owner's building.

The artists made an agreement with the owner to "decorate his building in exchange for him displaying our art." The owner "was not going to provide one cent" to the artists and in return he was "going to allow the artists to paint whatever they want." The artists got together and painted a mural that said, "Power, unity, funk, hip-hop, peace," and then in the top it had a banner. The banner said "No Human is Illegal."


The completed mural, which up-and-coming artists came together to produce.
(Image by PPC Photography)
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The completed mural, which up-and-coming artists came together to produce. by PPC Photography

The owner started "requesting that the statement about immigration be removed as well as any kind of reference to hip-hop be removed as well." The artists "reminded him what the agreement was and also made it clear some of the artists -"especially the artists behind some of the portions he wanted removed--were out of town and that he wait to let the piece be what they want but we ourselves could whitewash the work. And then the next day he just whitewashed the whole mural."

"We feel that was really an attack," claims Montanez. "Folks don't want us talking about immigrants as humans. And that disturbs some people, but it's also clearly censorship."


The building after the mural was censored or whitewashed.
(Image by PPC Photography)
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The building after the mural was censored or whitewashed. by PPC Photography

Montanez suggests this censorship reflects a "change" in art away from something that is an affirmation to or an aspiration of the community to something that more closely resembles "commercial trendy art." It's a move toward "commercialism" and art that "promotes drinking beer, drinking wine, dining out but it doesn't really speak of community issues." And, in many cases, Montanez adds, it can't because the artists coming in and creating the art are not from the community so they cannot ever speak for the community.

For example, he tells the story of a decision by leaders in his neighborhood to paint a mural to cover up the ugliness of homeless people sleeping under a viaduct. Instead of creating a mural that made a statement about these people, people who society has marginalized and forgotten about, they chose to create an aesthetic mural. They chose to create art that could cover up and obscure the reality and provide people an escape from the ugliness of life. An artist agreed to work in the service of power to help power take the community's eyes off the despair going on in that part of their neighborhood.

Montanez reflects on the way that capitalism has really become toxic to the power of art in communities:

What artists have to realize as artists, musicians, educators is that we play a critical role in the economy. What the capitalists listen to is money. Money is the only thing that talks to them and it's the only thing that talks to our elected officials and to our electoral politicians. And so, they say we only vote every two or every four years. And we come to believe that that's the way to bring about change. But the reality is that we vote every day, several times a day -where we shop, where we eat, where we go out. In fact, a lot of these businesses would be nowhere if it wasn't for artists holding events, holding open-mics, holding just music shows. All of this is what stimulates these communities and really are displacing the masses. So, artists have to understand the role that we play. We're accomplices to our people's displacement and the suppression of our own voice. We have to realize --- The answer I see is we need to organize a mass boycott, locally and nationally, to make sure that the voice of the artist.

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Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure." He was an editor for OpEdNews.com

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