Morality Police Deface Public Art in Springfield, MA

Wrong Springfield

Censorship — its not just for rednecks

I often rant about the censorship minded former confederacy — but I must admit that my home state of Massachusetts has its share of censorship monkeys. The censorship monkey of the day — the city of Springfield, MA and Gina E. Beavers, director of the Springfield Arts Initiative for the Springfield Business Improvement District (SBID).

Springfield, Massachusetts and its Sneaker Exhibit

The City of Springfield is essentially a heroin and crack infested slum with three things going for it: The Basketball Hall of Fame, a couple of decent strip clubs, and the Huke Lau (which is actually in Chicopee). To help celebrate the first in the list, the SBID put together the “Art and Soles” exhibit. The exhibit placed 19 huge fiberglass basketball sneakers throughout the downtown area. Various artists were asked to paint them with the theme “What do you love about Springfield?” (source)

Artist Robert Markey decided that his theme would be “dancing.” So he painted ballet dancers, hip-hop dancers, and other forms of “regular” dance all over the upper part of the sneaker. On the bottom, he decided to show the “underside” of Springfield by depicting a pole dancer. She was clothed, in a bikini.

“She had gold hair, and she was sort of embracing the pole. She wasn’t nude … I meant it sort of tongue-in-cheek – the underside of Springfield, on the bottom of the shoe,” said Markey, 62, standing beside his sneaker outside Tower Square on Main Street and referring to the cluster of nude dancing clubs in an approximately three-block radius downtown. (source)

However, once the organizers of the event saw the sole of Markey’s sneaker, they freaked — and they spray painted it black.

They didn’t call him.

They didn’t give him a chance to change it.

They didn’t even give him a chance to photograph it. So there is no record of what it looked like.

His art is gone.

“We decided that it could not happen. This was supposed to be a family friendly art exhibit in the heart of (Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame) enshrinement week,” Beavers said. “We wish we had time to let Bob in on the decision, but there just wasn’t time.” (source)

Markey took the position that since Springfield’s strippers are the only professional dancers in the city, they deserved as much recognition as any other dancers.

Douchetastic, for certain. But is there a legal claim here?

In civil law countries, artists have what are known as “moral rights” in their artwork. These are rights outside of the copyright to a certain work. Moral Rights essentially protect the artist in an inalienable way — by protecting the right of attribution and prohibiting the mutilation or modification of an artist’s work. For example, if an Italian director makes a black and white film, and he sells his copyright in the film to a studio, the studio can not later colorize the film without the director’s permission.

But we do not live in a civil law jurisdiction.

Nevertheless, moral rights are recognized in the United States, in a very limited capacity, by the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), codified at 17 U.S.C. § 106A. Among other things, VARA gives a visual artist the right to prevent the ” distortion, mutilation, or other modification of the work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation.” See 17 U.S.C. § 106A(a)(2).

This leaves us with two questions: Did Markey sign away those rights? Maybe. I haven’t read his contract with the SBID. The other question is whether the mutilation of his work was “prejudicial to his honor or reputation.” That might seem like a difficult sell, but we’re not talking about “reputation” in the defamation sense — we’re talking about an artist’s reputation. It seems to me that if Mr. Markey intended to create a mental three-dimensional picture of Springfield, and the SBID turned it into a whitewashed and banal piece of dreck, he might have a legitimate gripe. The SBID’s sins seem to be exacerbated by the fact that they did so without even bothering to call Markey up on the phone so that he could modify the work, or at least make a record of it before they destroyed it.

Legally actionable or not, it certainly was douchetastic, and Ms. Beavers’ explanation only booted it into the douchemagnetisophere.

4 Responses to Morality Police Deface Public Art in Springfield, MA

  1. Justin T. says:

    Reacting so harshly to something so benign is like saying “please graffiti pictures of naked chicks and dicks all over the city.” At least that would be my response. Sometimes the only way to make them realize how stupid their censorship was is to show them how much worse it couldve been.

  2. Pam C. says:

    Oh, my old legal turf! Wonder who gave the legal advice, if anyone.

  3. John Burgess says:

    Western MA has its own, deeply rooted, hypertrophied sense of the moral.

    Having left there, I look back only for family funerals.

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