The case against Bourgeau is a travesty and an attack on democratic rights. It stems from an exhibition he mounted in a Pontiac gallery in early March. The show—an arrangement of reproductions of paintings and photographs of nudes—was a compressed version of his “Art Until Now” exhibit, which was shut down by officials at the Detroit Institute of Arts in November. The opening of the March exhibit coincided with a public forum on art and censorship, “FEAR NO ART: The Politics of Correctness.”
Bourgeau explains: “I was approached by the owner of the Oakland Arts Center; he said that he would like to put together a panel discussion on censorship. He asked me to curate a complementary exhibition in a recently vacated gallery space in the building. The panel itself would occur in a small hall upstairs. ‘FEAR NO ART' was born. Two thousand invitations were sent out.
“Taking the preconceived notion that all this art, and perhaps most of contemporary art, is ‘bad' or ‘naughty' or plain ‘obscene,' I decided to present the material much as you'd find in a ‘bad' person's room or locker. I attached close to one thousand images on the walls of the borrowed gallery in a dense collage. Images cut and torn from all of the prestigious art mags much as one would from the porn mags. Magazines purchased at Borders Books and the Detroit Institute of the Arts.” (We list below the artists whose works were reproduced in the show.)
The collage was mounted on a wall at right angles to the street. As Bourgeau notes, “Someone would have to press hard against the glass and squint to make out the small images attached to walls that fell away perpendicular to the street itself.”
As Bourgeau worked on his show one individual, a maintenance man in the building, began to complain about the nudes. He “began shouting and lecturing about the images' perverse nature and that we should protect the children,” Bourgeau says. “I covered the plate windows to the lobby so that he and any errant children would be unable to view the exhibit.”
On the day of the opening, according to Bourgeau, the individual returned, demanding that the street window also be covered and that he be given equal space within the gallery to mount his own exhibit. The latter would consist of several bottles of water, which he would claim to be wine, since Bourgeau was insisting that the offending images constituted “art.” When the artist rejected the proposal, the man threatened to call the FBI, the police and the press.
A crew from a local television station duly arrived that afternoon. Bourgeau explains: “They interviewed the janitor for quite some time. They spoke briefly with me, and I impressed upon them the importance of the panel discussion the next day [March 4] to answer all their questions by experts.” When the television reporter asked about “little children,” Bourgeau explained how difficult it would be for anyone to make out the images from the street.
The comedy continues. “The TV van parked in front of the building for the next three hours,” Bourgeau says. “The occupant starting it every so often to warm himself or spoke on his cell phone.... At dark, at seven PM, the lights in the gallery went up and the doors opened for the wine and cheese crowd traveling to Pontiac for the gallery crawl. The TV crew repositioned themselves in front of the street window. The janitor had gone and retrieved his daughter from her mother. She was placed in front of the window for the cameras and stared at the show.”
The symposium was scheduled for the next day at 1 p.m. When Bourgeau arrived at 11 a.m. to open up the gallery, the police were waiting for him. “They insist that I let them into the locked gallery. I say that I'm not sure of my rights. They say that if I don't let them in, they'll arrest me. But I say the complaint is about viewing from the street window. Then, the gallery owner from upstairs comes down and says that he has called his lawyer and at his advice [the lawyer's]—not to let the police in. The police turn to him and threaten to arrest him. They confide that they wouldn't be there if the news media hadn't gotten involved. I say we haven't many options then, and unlock the gallery.
“They take Polaroids in extreme close-up of those works they find the most ‘obscene' and charge and cite me with presenting ‘obscene materials.' After they leave, I ask a friend to cover the street window. He does as I hurriedly prepare for the panel upstairs on censorship.”
The penalty for displaying "obscenity" is three months in jail or a $500 fine.
An episode such as this has quite far-reaching implications, and not simply for artists. Bourgeau's exhibit had not generated any public outcry. No one walking by on the street had noticed a thing, or at any rate complained about it. Yet one “individual citizen," with the compliance of the media and the police, has managed to haul a respected artist before the courts on obscenity charges, with the possibility of a jail sentence hanging over him.
The state of democratic rights in the US at present is fragile. At the instigation of Christian fundamentalists or some other group of right-wingers, the authorities are ready and willing to assault basic rights, knowing that they can count on the support of the media and the silence, or at best passive opposition, of the liberal cultural elite.
A petition is being circulated in the Detroit area in Bourgeau's defense. It states that governments “are neither qualified nor charged” to decide the issues of contemporary art and that the signers “support any artist or curator's right to create and present exhibitions of art. We also support the public's independent right to choose the art they view, without outside bias or censorship.”