On its own terms, the visceral chaos of war is unmatched. But the blood spilled on the battlefield and the bombast of the propaganda maker have always been turned on their heads by the artist, frothing rhetoric and flying bits of bone transformed into calm horror and splatterings of paint. Franco's Guernica civilian bombardment becomes Picasso's Guernica masterpiece. In theory, art also has advantages in that it needn't worry about impressing the brass. But in one of my favourite war-themed ironies, a group of artists had their anti-war art banned from the Artists Against War-organized One Big No, the peace festival that bloomed in Nathan Phillips Square on Saturday. Weirdly, everyone involved tells the story differently.
We started investigating when NOW received a press release charging that some artists had been censored by City Hall. One of the fugitive pieces contained a supposedly unpopular word, and at least eight other works followed, allegedly either axed or gone AWOL in protest.
I spoke with Glenn Guerin, curator of the Noxious Art Group, who had been chosen by organizers to round up anti-war artists. But Guerin says that three days before the event he was informed by organizers that City Hall had banned a piece, and ultimately he was told that artists whose participation he had arranged would not be allowed to show their works after all.
Now Guerin says he never dealt directly with City Hall and that it was Artists Against War who told him that Menno Krant's art had been banned by a city "visual art approval committee" because it contained the nasty word. He also learned that Krant's second piece, which contained no profanity, was also banned.
And then, he says, he was told that AAW itself had banned two other works. He maintains that organizers said they "wouldn't even show them to the City Hall committee," presumably because the committee was being so hard-nosed on the art that there was no point.
But AAW organizers see the whole matter entirely differently. They say a single piece by Krant was banned by City Hall because it contained the text "Make love, fuck Bush," and the rest were cut due to logistical constraints. They say they never even reviewed the work of Guerin's other artists.
"Really, the only problem the city had was with one piece," Christie Findlay of AAW tells me. The others were cut due to time constraints. "We had a lot of people who wanted to be in those tents," says Findlay. (It was a powerful little show. One simple sculpture of a cloaked figure brought me to tears.)
Then I called City Hall to discover that folks there believe they didn't censor anything at all. Marguerite Reid of City Hall's special events desk, who spent most of a day "collecting information" after my phone query, maintains that the city didn't have a problem at all. She tells me it usually requires "eight weeks for all the material to get passed through an application." Art might be banned because it's deemed to contravene the Human Rights Code or has a possibility of "offending."
You guessed it. There's nothing in the Human Rights Code banning words related to fornication. (No, I don't mind if you look that up.) We're strictly on our own when it comes to dirty words. When I ask what the city's complaint was about a word you could have heard on numerous street corners during the time of the festival, Reid tells me it had none.
"It was actually the organizers who made that decision" to censor both Krant's piece and others, she says. I listen carefully to hear the buck being passed in the background. "The organizers said yes and no to various artists," says Reid. There it is.
I reread some correspondence between Guerin and random organizers. It seems AAW types complained that Guerin did not respect their processes. "If (he) had been part of the organizing process instead of simply taking advantage of the venue provided...," one wrote.
"In the end, it is our event," wrote an organizer, "and we'll decide what goes into it."
This makes me nervous. To me, City Hall actually felt more accountable than Artists Against War (one phone call before I knew who to talk to vs. three phone calls and three e-mails). Certainly, much blame must go to City Hall (whoever that is) for having the power to encourage self-censorship, but it looks a lot like the organizers didn't exactly put up a fight.
Either way, I'm left wondering why an event dealing with two of humanity's most powerful and devastating inventions -- art and war -- was expected by some to be a strictly vanilla affair. Picasso didn't paint the beautiful, and war doesn't have to look like a street party.