My town is an embarrassment

I hope everybody in Jersey City who makes art got the message loud and clear yesterday. Should you be naive enough to contract with the municipal government on a public project, the city reserves the right to alter your work without your consent. A citizen who finds your painting offensive can push the city to deface your project in the name of the general welfare. What we’ve learned from the Monopoly mural fiasco: our local politicians don’t understand how art works or why it’s important, they don’t understand why free expression needs to be safeguarded, and they’re untrustworthy partners for creative people.

To recap: a Jersey City artist called Mr. Abillity painted a large mock-Monopoly board at the western end of the pedestrian plaza on Newark Avenue. Not only was this sanctioned by the city, it was publicized by the Mayor himself. The Monopoly project was part of the mural campaign that has thrown paintings on every available wall citywide; Mr. Fulop, a prolific tweeter, tweeted his intention to make the town over into an outdoor art gallery (his words). Most of the works in this gallery are anodyne, but Mr. Abillity’s wasn’t. His Monopoly mural is a straightforward, if inelegant, comment on the widespread property trading that has consumed the Downtown for a decade at least. There’s a long tradition of this sort of reappropriation in Jersey City arts — those who’ve been around here for awhile might remember that Ron English used to do a similar thing with his mock-advertising billboards. Unlike English’s work, which traded in verisimilitude and surprise, Mr. Abillity’s board was loose and slangy, and used Hasbro’s austere aesthetic as a jumping-off point rather than something to replicate.

No sooner did the paint dry — actually, before the finishing touches even went on the board — did the community and the city begin pressuring Mr. Abillity to bowdlerize his work. The police, for instance, didn’t like the cartoon pig on the Go To Jail space. To placate the fuzz, this was replaced by a character from the Simpsons. Others didn’t like that the Katyn Memorial, which appears on one of the card spaces, was titled “cool statue.” Charged with flippancy, the artist amended this, too. But a few days ago, when Pamela Johnson from the Anti-Violence Coalition called the jail space racist, Mr. Abillity drew the line. The guy behind bars was a self-portrait; he’d had his own run-ins with the law, and that was him in the clink. Not good enough, said Johnson (joined by Assemblywoman McKnight): the image reinforced ugly stereotypes about criminals, and had to be removed. The artist, not unreasonably, asked why he should excise his own experience from his painting. But by now the buzzards were circling. The mural had begun to get critical press, and an administration obsessed with appearances swung into action. In a disgusting display of state-sanctioned vandalism, the city went ahead and blotted out the picture — rather crudely, too — with orange paint.

Mr. Abillity is probably feeling betrayed right now, and it’s tough not to have sympathy for him. The city government made a show of support for the Monopoly mural — they even promised to supply pieces so pedestrians could play on it. But the Mayor was more interested in the publicity generated by the mural than he ever was in the realization of the project. He sold Mr. Abillity out to the censors the moment it became apparent that his work had made some people uncomfortable. Here’s the official statement from the government, quoted by Terrence McDonald in the Journal:

“The mural program should be uplifting and a positive for the city, so being that this became a distraction from the goal of the program we decided to take it out.”

Got that? Allow me to translate. You, participant in the mural program, may think you’re engaged in an art project, and maybe on some level you are. But fundamentally, you’re an ad man working on behalf of the Make It Yours campaign, and your primary responsibility is making Jersey City look hip, happening, inclusive, and a suitable spot for real estate development. Should you get out of line and harm our interests, we’ll disavow you and screw with your work. And since we’re as squeamish as any other imagination-poor middle managers with brands to protect, we’ll jump to take the side of anybody who has a problem with what you’re doing. The customer is always right.

Real art isn’t about making the customer happy. It’s a confusing and troubled world we live in, and ours is a confused and troubled city, and any artist who does not inscribe some of that turmoil in his work isn’t worth his paintbrushes. An artist’s job is not to kiss ass, or uplift the community on a rising tide of feel-good bullshit, or drive up the value of real estate on Columbus Avenue. The artist’s job is to push viewers, and raise questions, and, sometimes, to throw his audience off balance. If the Mayor and the rest of his clown car administration can’t handle that, they should do us all a favor, drop the act, and get out of the art business altogether.

The Monopoly mural isn’t an inflammatory work. It’s a cartoon. People can set aside their worries about it and deal with its mild provocation without much fear that it’s going to inspire misdeeds or even misunderstandings. The policemen and law-enforcement sympathizers who took offense to the silly pig illustration can afford to ask themselves why Mr. Abillity, and many others, aren’t exactly bursting with respect for authority at the moment. They’re armed; they’ll be OK. Pamela Johnson and Assemblywoman McKnight probably mean well, but their objections to the mural reveal more about their own prejudices than they do about Mr. Abillity’s. The race of the guy behind bars, rendered in basic skin-tone spray paint, seemed deliberately ambiguous. If I was Pamela Johnson tonight, I’d be seriously wondering why I looked at that generic, largely featureless caricature and saw a black man. If I was the Assemblywoman, I’d be asking myself if I want to align myself with the sort of people who get up in arms about illustrations, and whether I really want to be one of those fundamentalists who chase down artists for offensive depictions of the Prophet and such. As an elected official with artists among my constituents, I’d need to cultivate a more sophisticated relationship to artistic representation than that.

But we should all recognize that the real villain here is the Mayor, who postured as a with-it dude and arts patron and caved to political pressure of the fustiest kind the moment it was applied. That he wouldn’t recognize a work of art if he tripped over it has always been apparent to me, yet because of his relative youth, he gets a pass from those who ought to know better. Because there’s no gallery owner — outdoor or indoor– that would ever strongarm an artist like Mr. Abillity the way he did, he set his own absurd pretensions aflame yesterday. If this is the incident that reveals him for the philistine he is, maybe we can finally pass Go with a clearer understanding of what we’re up against.