Liddick: When free speech crosses the line
What are we to take from recent events surrounding the work of Enrique Chagoya in the Loveland Art Museum – aside from the tentative conclusion that Loveland’s esthetic sense is rather different from that of Kalispell, Montana?
Or maybe it’s common sense that’s different.
Enrique Chagoya exists to offend; it is his metier, his stock-in-trade. Largely a collagist, he uses a wide variety of images and characters from popular culture – the Lone Ranger, Jesus, Muhammad, Nancy, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pablo Picasso and Krazy Kat among them – to provoke his viewers. His vision of his adopted country is nasty, expressed with a clever but venomous spite; he has no use for Western Culture, save to use its famous tolerance against it. Which of course endears him to a fairly wide swath of today’s nihilistic “art” community.
And last week in Loveland, those who fawn over Chagoya’s “wry sense of humor” discovered that sometimes, when one tries to see how far into a person’s eye one can insert a thumb, a broken nose results. Not everyone is so open-minded that their brains have fallen out.
I have no brief for Kathleen Folden, the crowbar critic; her actions were at the very least foolish. If she had thought things through, she would have immediately announced herself a “performance artist,” thus presenting Loveland authorities with a pretty problem: how does one judge the validity of such a claim? After all, if an “artist” is one who creates “art” which is “art” because and “artist” says it is – the tautological description embraced by mediocrities since the “found object” school began – who’s to say she’s not? Alas, Ms. Folden was not so clever, and her actions seem to be a simple act of vandalism provoked by offense. Which brings us to the real issue here.
Before being reduced to confetti, Mr. Chagoya’s work spawned protests. There was picketing and some very grumpalicious shouting. Leaders of Loveland’s arts community were shocked by this demonstration of Philistinism; the First Amendment was thrown over the artwork like a bomb blanket. And after the attack there was shock and outrage from the usual suspects.
Let’s be clear about a couple of things: First, Ms. Folden’s act, while reprehensible, does not rise to the level of the murder of Theo van Gough. Nor to the level of dynamiting Silk Road Buddhas in Afghanistan. Nor the issuing of death fatwas against authors like Salmon Rushdie. It is what it is, instead: an outrage-fueled act against an artist-provocateur who pushed one too many persons’ buttons a little too hard.
Second, this is not a case involving the First Amendment in any but the most peripheral of ways, and should not be made one. Yes, Enrique Chagoya has a right to express his opinion about the country and the culture whose tolerance he so gleefully exploits. And his opponents in Loveland, including Deacon Ed Armijo, have every right to express their opinions about Mr. Chagoya’s work and the appropriateness of displaying such dreck in a publicly financed museum, in plain view of minors.
Those who would use the free speech argument in Mr. Chagoya’s defense should also consider that the First Amendment’s guarantees are not absolute – witness Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s famous quip about “fire in a crowded theatre,” as well as the seriousness with which we create laws and regulations to prevent insults and discomfort to certain classes of citizens.
Tellingly, it should be noted that observant Christians do not seem to be among these classes. In 2009, a “speech code” at the Los Angeles Community College District was used to penalize a student for a speech in which he discussed his faith, thereby creating what was deemed an “offensive environment” for his classmates. But the instructor who called him a “fascist bastard” in class afterward didn’t even get a slap on the wrist. Apparently some folks are more easily offended than others.
Furthermore, not all religious communities are equal. Judging from current events, our Muslim friends are among those who must be accommodated – although what will happen if jihadist websites latch onto the fact that a panel of Mr. Chagoya’s work features Muhammad cavorting with pigs is an interesting question. Will the more easily provoked among them protest? Will there be a picket line? Or will other actions be taken? And what will the reaction be if there is? Remember who started it …
In this situation, perhaps Mr. Chagoya and his partisans in Loveland should remember the immortal words of my dear departed dad: “It’s all fun until someone gets hurt…”
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