Imagine you are an American military veteran who has been injured in combat overseas. You have seen some of your friends cut down in the bloom of their youth, giving “the last full measure of devotion” for their cohort and their country. Throughout your network of friends and family, you know of countless others who have sacrificed, whether of themselves or through a loved one, to serve their country and the values upon which it was founded. Now you lie in a bed at a Veteran’s Affairs hospital in downtown Los Angeles, trying to work through your loss of function one day at a time. A nurse enters your room and throws open the curtains at the window, letting in the morning sun. As your eyes adjust to the light, you note from across the way a mural painted along a wide stretch of building. It is a depiction of the coffins of fallen soldiers. Draped across each, where a flag would normally lay, is an oversized dollar bill.
This hypothetical situation is likely what popped into the mind of Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) director Jeffrey Deitch when he first beheld the above work of Italian “street artist” Blu. The work had been commissioned by the MOCA without any consideration of content. Blu was simply provided the north wall of the MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary to adorn as he pleased, and chose to craft the depiction of coffins draped in dollar bills. In an effort to demonstrate sensitivity to the community, Deitch decided to have the work whitewashed. Predictably, the “street art community” has cried out in protest, accusing the MOCA of censorship.
It is censorship, and that’s okay. Censorship is one of those words which has an undeservedly negative connotation. While the free and open exchange of ideas is certainly healthy, there are responsible and irresponsible ways to go about it. The owners of mediums which transmit those ideas are within their rights to discern responsible use and prohibit irresponsible use. That is precisely what Deitch did.
“The Geffen Contemporary building is located on a special, historic site,” the statement said. “Directly in front of the north wall is the Go For Broke Monument, which commemorates the heroic roles of Japanese American soldiers….” The statement goes on to mention the nearby Veterans Affairs building.
“This is 100% about my effort to be a good, responsible, respectful neighbor in this historic community,” Deitch said. “Out of respect for someone who is suffering from lung cancer, you don’t sit in front of them and start chain smoking.
Perhaps a crude analogy, Deitch’s point is nonetheless well taken. As with the Ground Zero Mosque controversy, the issue here is not whether Blu has the right to express himself, but whether he should.