The giant penises were hard enough for them to swallow. For the past 11 months, Musicathe 40-foot-tall bronze sculpture that depicts nine oversized nude figures frolicking on the Music Row roundabouthas apparently given many people a lot of discomfort during their morning commutes. In fact, the Metro Arts Commission still gets complaints about the $1.1 million Alan LeQuire sculpture, which, incidentally, was donated to the city free of charge.
"I cannot recall one instance of people celebrating the sounds of music and displaying their most private parts at the same time," one outraged observer took note in a posting on The Tennessean's Web site shortly after the piece debuted. "Did this design come from the Sodom and Gomorrah scrapbook?" asked another, valiantly attempting fundamentalist humor. The Southern Baptists fired up the negative PR machine, and a scraggly handful of shocked, scandalized and violated Metro Council members hopped up on their soapboxes to decry obscenity in all formsbut particularly those of classically inspired sculpture.
Guess what? They're at it again. But this time, the blushing legislators-turned-art-critics are taking on a new medium: the postcard.
Yes, you heard right. Just over a week ago, council member Jason Alexander (not to be confused with the intentionally funny Jason Alexander) fired off an angry letter to the director of the Metro Arts Commission, the director of the Tennessee Arts Commission and the chairperson of the Frist Center's board of trustees. In it, he proclaimed that the piece of artwork reproduced on an art exhibition postcard he received was "pornography and not the art you suggest it is." He went on to complain that images depicting "full frontal nudity" should not be sent to the homes of "Metro employees who might have children that could be easily influenced." Alexander copied the letter to the mayor, vice mayor and all 40 members of the Metro Council.
Before going on, let's be clear about the art in question. Titled "Working for America," the colorful 6-foot-tall painting depicts an anguished-looking nude female astraddle an overgrown yellow Hummer SUV driving over a dwarfed planet Earth. The Hummer looks like it will soon run over a small human figure in front of it. The female, who is draped in an American flag, clutches a fistful of cash in one hand and a police baton ("or dildo, depending on how you look at it," the artist says) in the other.
Memphis-based artist Jan Hankins created the piece for an exhibition at Ruby Green, a Fifth Avenue art galleryand as you might guess, he intended to get people talking. "It's just about the marketing of gas-guzzling American consumers after 9/11," he says. "You know, we're still dependent on foreign oil, and instead of people going out and buying efficient vehicles, they're going out and buying Hummers by the shitload. It's really perverse." The art opening and gallery talk were held Sept. 11, and Hankins reports his provocative images got people talking.
But no one, it's safe to bet, was talking titties. Viewers of the opening were far more likely to discuss the iconography and not-so-subtle symbolism of Hankins' work. And some lefty gallery-goers surely talked about the evils of all things Bush and the frustrating impotence of populist power in the face of global capitalism. For most people, the nude female form was the least provocative aspect of this artwork.
But not for Jason Alexander. As he was heading out the door to a council meeting, he got a glimpse of the card and got all hot and bothered. At the meeting, Alexander quickly consulted council moralist-at-arms Carolyn Baldwin Tucker and brought up the image so recently burned into his retinas. Alexander says Tucker, whom the Scene couldn't reach, was "extremely offended" by the postcard. Alexander says he spoke to one or two other council members as well.
One of them was apparently District 4's Michael Craddock, who wrote to the Arts Commission's director, Norree Boyd, to express his unhappiness with the purportedly prurient postcard. "I am absolutely appalled almost beyond words that I received a postcard...that depicts such a disgusting and deplorable picture," he wrote on Sept. 10. "I am hereby requesting a full accounting of any and all taxpayer monies that have been pledged or expended on behalf of this reception, showing and mailing."
And with that, the magic words were said. "If any taxpayer funds have been pledged or expended toward these events, I find it most reprehensible." Which means that unlike Alexander, who told the Scene that he was "OK with the artwork" but uncomfortable that it was sent sans envelope to his home, Craddock has some reservations about the content of the work itself. And he seems to be interested in threatening the agency's funding.
He tells the Scene that he's not naive enough to think that a lone council member could threaten the cash for an entire agency. But he says he's "curious to see how much taxpayer money is being spent on this." Alexander, on the other hand, says, "I would not restrict any dollars from the Metro Arts Commission or anything like that."
Of course, custodians of public art are used to such controversies. After Musica was installed, the Arts Commission took a hefty 23 percent budget cut, which some folks speculated was payback for the bulging bronze. But Boyd, who's only been on the job four months, understands her agency's tough situation. "Public art has to be for the public, and that has to be something that pleases most of the people most of the time," she says. Boyd defends herself in this situation, though, noting that the commission helps fund Ruby Green's operating budget, and the strings on those monies require the gallery to put the agency's logo on all promotional material. But, says Boyd in a letter to Alexander, "We do not review the material prior to mailing." She assures the council member that she will encourage heightened sensitivitysay, a nudity threat level of orange?in the future.
Ruby Green's Chris Campbell, who seems genuinely surprised to find herself in the middle of so much petty political posturing, says the only reason "Working for America" appeared on the gallery's promotional postcard was because Hankins wasn't yet finished with the other works. Besides, Campbell notes, "In the entire show, it's the only breast there."
Campbell also tells the Scene that the only reason council members got the postcard in the first place was because "it's a requirement of the Tennessee Arts Commission that the council receive our mailings."
So the smut-smiting council members find themselves in a tough spot. Stay on the council and be forced to receive peddled porn from leftist artists, or resign and be filth-free.
Here's hoping they stay, if only for their colorful commentary. "It showed her breasts and also, um, the lower region," says Alexander. Seconds Craddock: "There's even pubic hair on display. I mean, jeez."
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