Denmark/USA: Artists censored in public spaces

14 July 2016

Art in public spaces raises several issues around acceptable content/subject matter, including nudity, race, politics or obscenity, who is funding the work, whether it’s government, business or private individuals, and what the processes are behind who decides what goes up or comes down and why.

Three recent incidents of art in public spaces in Denmark and the USA illustrate some of the myriad issues that occur when art is displayed outside the walls of museums and galleries.

mr ability gary wynans usa

State paints over part of mural
Jersey City officials in the US state of New Jersey on 30 June 2016 painted over a square in a large 33-foot by 33-foot (approx. 10 metres by 10 metres) Monopoly game board mural they had commissioned due to a group of residents who deemed the portion to be racist, reported The Jersey Journal on 30 June 2016.

The corner square that traditionally depicts a man behind bars in jail had been replaced with a self-portrait of the artist Mr. Ability (real name Gary Wynans), who is of Puerto Rican and Italian descent, behind the bars. The group saw this image as racist, saying it reinforced negative stereotypes of people of colour, and demanded the city paint over it, which they did, leaving the square completely orange.

The artist told the newspaper that he was “disappointed” and that people were projecting their own racial biases on the square; whereas, city spokewoman Jennifer Morill said the mural should have been something “uplifting” and “positive” for the city, but that this controversy became a “distraction” from that aim.

Critics of the city’s actions, including the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), have said they have violated the artist’s artistic freedom and that other actions would have been more preferable.

NCAC programmes director Svetlana Mintcheva told the newspaper that the city should have policies in place for when residents object to art they commission, and in this case could have posted a statement by the mural explaining the square or hosted a public forum to discuss the issue.

“Pleasing everybody is not what public art is supposed to do,” Mintcheva said.

aaron bell usa

City department reverses decision
In November 2015 in nearby New York City, the city’s parks and recreation department rejected artist Aaron Bell’s proposal of a 16-foot (approx. five metres) tall sculpture of a human body with a noose instead of a head, calling it “problematic”, but reversed its decision on 14 June 2016 allowing the artist to alter the now-displayed statue to its original conception, reported Artforum on 22 June 2016.

The original proposal of the sculpture entitled ‘Stand Loud, Stand Tall’ included a slash going through the noose symbolising an end to intolerance and featured a quote by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. on the pedestal, reported The New York Times on 29 May 2016.

The artist told The New York Times that he replaced the noose with a large mouth to “satisfy members of the parks department”, but wasn’t happy about it.

On 14 June 2016, Bell and his civil rights lawyer met with parks department general counsel Alessandro Olivieri to discuss displaying the statue in it’s original form, to which Olivieri agreed.

“This is a victory not just for me, but for every artist who has ever been subject to censorship,” Bell told online news site West Side Rag on 17 June 2016.

The sculpture is part of the joint city and Arts Students League ‘Model to Monument’ programme that places large public art works in two parks – one in the Bronx and one in Manhattan. Bell’s statue is featured in Riverside Park South in Manhattan.


Police censor photo exhibit
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean in Denmark, controversy continues over a photo exhibit featuring nude women that began in December 2015.

At the time, photographer Mathilde Grafström attempted to put on an exhibition entitled ‘Female Beauty with an Edge’ in an urban square in Copenhagen, which was rejected by the police as they deemed it “indecent”. The photographer filed a complaint with the police and the decision was reversed in late January 2016, leaving Grafström to re-apply to the municipality.

Months later, the photographer’s application was somewhat successful. Grafström will be able to hold her exhibition in the same Copenhagen square, but will not be able to feature photos that visibly show genitals, though breats and buttocks are allowed, reported Jyllands-Posten on 25 June 2016.

“It is, in my eyes, totally ludicrous and totally unacceptable, and I feel strongly censored,” Grafström told the Danish newspaper.

The photographer feels that her project will now be “defaced”, but has nonetheless agreed to the police’s terms and will still go on with the exhibition set to take place from 25 July – 5 August 2016. She has also decided to display photos that feature genitals, but will reduce the format of the photos to a size where they will not be visible.

Photos: Top photo from Gary Wynan’s (Mr. Ability) Facebook page; photo of Aaron Bell and drawing of original statue from NCAC Twitter feed; photo of Mathilde Grafström from her Twitter page


» National Coalition Against Censorship – 5 July 2016:
Jersey City paints over mural portion after allegations of racism

» The Jersey Journal – 5 July 2016:
Jersey City mural flap illustrates complications when government funds art

» The Jersey Journal – 30 June 2016:
Jersey City paints over street art critics called racist

» TV2 – 28 June 2016:
Artist angry about censorship

» Jyllands Posten – 25 June 2016:
Nude ban continues: Photographer should censor art exhibition

» Artforum – 22 June 2016:
NYC reverses decision to censor artist’s “problematic” public sculpture

» West Side Rag – 17 June 2016:
After censorship controversy, city will allow noose sculpture in Riverside Park

» National Coalition Against Censorship – 13 June 2016:
“Stand Tall, Stand Loud” censored by NYC Department of Parks; UPDATE: NYC Parks reverses decision

» The New York Times – 27 May 2016:
A ‘problematic’ sculpture is silenced by New York park officials

More from Freemuse

» 30 May 2016: China: Political art installation pulled from public space in Hong Kong

» 29 January 2016: Denmark: Ban reversed on nude photo exhibit

» 18 November 2014: South Africa: Artist threatened for public space art project

» 22 October 2013: United Kingdom: Corporate censorship in public space

Home / News / Denmark/USA: Artists censored in public spaces

Check Also

Freemuse condemns the killing of painter Raman Bandarenka and calls for a thorough investigation

Belarusian painter Raman Bandarenka died due to injuries he obtained after unidentified men beat him over his use of a protest flag.