MOCA's decision to whitewash Blu's controversial mural: Censorship or sensitivity?
Was MOCA's decision to whitewash the commissioned mural from graffiti artist Blu a matter of censorship or sensitivity? The provocative antiwar mural showed coffins draped with dollar bills instead of flags -- in an area of downtown that neighbors a Veterans Affairs hospital and a war memorial to Japanese American soldiers. In an article in Wednesday's Times, writer Deborah Vankin takes the temperature among street artists. Among the reactions:
In one corner, there's Shepard Fairey, best known for his Barack Obama "Hope" painting, supporting MOCA's decision. He told The Times: "I'm not a fan of censorship but that is why I, and many of the other artists of the show, chose to engage in street art for its democracy and lack of bureaucracy. … However, a museum is a different context with different concerns."
In the other, there's street muralist Alex Poli Jr. (a.k.a. "Man One"). "Once [MOCA] put it up, they should defend the art they're commissioning," he told Vankin. "They know what Blu's work is like -- he critiques things and some of his subject matter is poignant and not pretty. This is Blu, that's what he's known for."
Of course, MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch is now working the damage-control circuit. In a separate story about the issue, the former New York gallery owner told The Times, "Look at my gallery website -- I have supported protest art more than just about any other mainstream gallery in the country. [...] But as a steward of a public institution, I have to balance a different set of priorities -- standing up for artists and also considering the sensitivities of the community."
If the community's sensitivities were an issue to Deitch, why did he allow MOCA to commission the mural in the first place? It turns out the museum didn't know exactly what it had commissioned; Blu was simply given the green light without any vetting process. A rookie mistake, certainly, but one with huge cultural implications.
In future endeavors, Deitch would be wise to learn what he's commissioning, especially when the artist is known for controversial art. Although we suspect Deitch knows that now.
-- Alexandra Le Tellier
Photo: Graffiti artist Blu paints an antiwar mural on the wall of MOCA's Geffen Contemporary downtown. The museum commissioned the work but then had it whitewashed. Credit: Justin T. Ho / For The Los Angeles Times