Thursday, September 07, 2006

Howland Library Board votes to remove artwork

Tuesday night, I attended the public comment period of the monthly Library Board meeting at the Howland Public Library. Approximately 10 men and woman opposing the display of Elia Gurna's piece, "I hear America Singing" in the window of the library also attended the meeting. Those opposed to the installed artwork who spoke at the meeting each used their allotted five minutes to relate their anguish, and deep sense offense taken by seeing what they percieve to be a desecration of a hallowed emblem. The general thrust of the statements was that the alteration of the flag's symbolic coloration is an affront to the memory of the men and women who have served and sacrificed their lives for this country and its flag, and the display of such in a public institution adds to the insult, and at least one person stated that if its presence in the library continued, their support for the library would not. BACA President, Sara Pasti and I spoke for the other side in this issue. As Elia Gurna was away and not able to attend. I read aloud her statement on the piece, and sought to convey the sense that the piece is a desecration in neither intent nor execution. The artwork is the expression of a personal relationship with a symbol that, although singular in its identity, constitutes an amalgamation of individual meanings for the citizens of a pluralistic nation of 200 million people, and I find this element of the individual's expression of his and her own "Americanness" to be a prime element in the Whitman poem on which the artwork is based.

I received a call from Sara Pasti on Wedsnesday informing me that the Library Board voted - unanimously - to have the flag remove by this coming Friday. Up to this point, I think the library has handled the controversy well, and has supported the principle behind displaying the artwork. The Windows on Main St. project relies on the hospitality of local businesses and institutions to host the installations created by the participating artists, and if an establishment chooses for some reason to have the artwork removed, we as organizers, and our sponsor, BACA accept that as an establishment's perogative, and we will honor such wishes if they occur. We are grateful to all of our participating businesses. The library in particular has been very enthusiastic in both this and last year's project, and has expressed interest in participating next year, and we welcome them. I am disappointed by the decision, and I figure it's a way for the library to save face in a way that, while the removal of the piece will occur just a couple of days short of the full term of the exhibit which is scheduled to end on Sept. 10, it should placate a very vocal demographic.

I honor the opinions of those who have voiced opposition to this artwork, but I certainly disagree with their position. This particular instance is a specific flash point of debate, but it speaks to a current of underlying issues that have formed with the influx of new residents to Beacon, and the changes it affects. I think moments like this can bring these issues to the front, potentially bearing positive results ...or they can go the other way. I'll hope for the former, not the latter.

On my way home Wednesday night, I saw that an actual American flag had been placed in the window, hanging in the same manner as Elia's piece, just a little smaller. I'm not sure what to think of it, except that with the opportunity to compare/contrast the two emblems in question, I feel it further illustrates the distinction between the actual item and the actualization of a poetic concept. I think this "side by side" setup inadvertantly serves to demonstrate the true and significant distance between Elia's artistic exploration, and a desecration of the nation's flag.

I expect there will be more comments on this topic, and I'll pass them along as I recieve them.

The text of "I hear America Singing" by Walt Whitman:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear;

Those of mechanics—each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong;

The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat—the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck;

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench—the hatter singing as he stands;

The wood-cutter’s song—the ploughboy’s, on his way in the morning, or at the noon intermission, or at sundown;

The delicious singing of the mother—or of the young wife at work—or of the girl sewing or washing—Each singing what belongs to her, and to none else;

The day what belongs to the day—At night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,

Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.

No comments: