The Belskie Museum of Art & Science in Closter, New Jersey, has said it is willing to reinstate five artworks by Renny Molenaar it had previously removed, on the grounds that they violated the U.S. Flag Code, from its current exhibition, “The American Dream: The Latino Experience in America.”
Contacted for comment about the decision, the museum sent a letter, dated April 18 and signed by Belskie board member Donald M. Farrell on behalf of the board, that reads, “Please be advised that after further thought and discussion we have reconsidered, and although offended by the artist’s work, will never the less agree to it being displayed during the remainder of this current exhibit if delivered to the museum.” The artist remains in possession of the works, though, and is not planning to return them to the show, which opened April 8 and runs through April 29.
Belskie’s letter was addressed to Joy Garnett of the National Coalition Against Censorship, which had sent the museum a missive on April 17, admonishing it for pulling five works by Philadelphia-based artist Renny Molenaar from the show. The pieces, which were made with acrylic paint applied to U.S. flags manufactured in China, feature the word “SEX” scrawled across the length of the flag, along with stripes, circles, suns, squiggles, and arrows.
Two days before the exhibition opened, Molenaar received a phone call from the exhibition’s guest curator, Dora Espinoza, saying that his works had been removed from the show after board members had visited the exhibition prior to its opening. According to Espinoza, the board informed her that they had removed the works from the show on the grounds that they desecrated the American flag. When Molenaar asked the museum for more information about the removal of his works, which are part of a new series of work called “Disappointing Patriotic Sex Paintings,” he received an unsigned letter stating, “When your work was presented to our museum, it was a picture, which we assumed was a painting of a U.S. flag and not painting on an actual flag. Painting or drawing on an actual U.S. flag is contrary to The United States Flag Code.”
“I’m not interested in offending them,” Molenaar told ARTnews by phone. “They claim they are offended by my work. That it is not my objective. I do understand my work pushes the emotional boundaries of certain things, but I do not want to exhibit where I’m not wanted.” He described feeling “disturbed” by the entire situation and noted that he wanted a public apology from the museum.
He added, “They’re anti-censorship pieces—that’s the irony of it.”
While there is, in fact, a United States Flag Code, prohibitions against the desecration of the U.S. flag were been ruled unconstitutional by two landmark United States Supreme Court cases, Texas v. Johnson (1989) and United States v. Eichman (1990), on the grounds of the First Amendment’s right to freedom of speech. The initial Johnson case dealt with the burning of the U.S. flag; it invalidated laws against flag desecration in various states. In response to that case, as well as to an installation by artist Dread Scott, then known as Scott Tyler, titled What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? (1988), Congress passed the Flag Protection Act into law in 1989. The legality of that act was then challenged in the Eichman case, where the Court, relying on precedent set by Johnson, ruled the act unconstitutional.
In the majority opinion in the Eichman case, Justice William Brennan wrote, “The mere destruction or disfigurement of a symbol’s physical manifestation does not diminish or otherwise affect the symbol itself.”
“Symbols are powerful,” Garnett told ARTnews by phone, “for all that we might minimize them and say ‘it’s just art.’ Well, apparently, it’s not just art; it’s not just symbolism. It goes to the core for a lot of people.”
Before the show opened, Molenaar had sent Espinoza information about the paintings, including their titles, dimensions, and mediums, listed as “acrylic paint on U.S. flags printed in China.” The board of the museum approved the work’s inclusion, and used an image of one painting in its promotional material for the show, even after it was removed. After they the works were taken out of the exhibition, the board returned them Espinoza, who then shipped them back to Molenaar.
Garnett said that the removal and reinstatement of the Molenaar works could set a precedent for censorship cases regarding private arts institutions. “While this is not a First Amendment case,” she said “it’s the same principle involved of trying to hold people to the standard where they tolerate speech or expressions that they are offended by, and that is the point. Often, one can’t really understand the offense that other people take. It is really personal. We also have to tolerate [the board’s] taking offense” to the work.
Molenaar said that he would be interested in participating in “a serious conversation about what took place and how to avoid it.” Garnett agreed that a talks program about the situation was needed. “With incidents like this, where it’s in a museum or a public institution, the best thing for the museum to do is to create a public program,” she said. “That’s also their responsibility to do that, not just to shut down the conversation because a few board members are upset. People need to express why they’re offended by something.”
On April 19, the day after the museum said it was willing to reinstate the works, Garnett sent a follow-up letter to the Belskie urging them to adopt guidelines about how to deal with these situations in the future. She submitted as a resource the NCAC’s “Museum Best Practices for Managing Controversy,” which states that “this set of strategies [is] designed to calm the waters, open space for conversation and learning, and prevent or defuse a potentially volatile situation through deliberate steps to create meaningful dialogue.” Those guidelines have been endorsed by six arts organizations, including the American Alliance of Museum and the College Art Association.
“Clearly when it comes to cultural institutions, there’s always differing opinions and wherever art is concerned there will be people who will be offended,” Garnett said. “It just goes with the territory.”