Drawing by Karen Finley
It Was Only Art was an essay addressing censorship in the arts in the form of an apocalyptic fable written by Karen Finley. Creative Time secured permission to reprint the piece after it appeared in Paper magazine in September of 1989 and subsequently mailed the essay to 15,000 people. The complete essay follows.
I went into a museum but they had taken down all the art. Only the empty frames were left. Pieces of masking tape were up with the names of the paintings and the artists and why they were removed. The guards had nothing to guard. The white walls were yellowed. Toilets were locked up in museums because people might think someone peeing is art. Someone might think that the act of peeing is a work of art. And the government pays for that pee flushing down that toilet. There were many bladder infections amongst those who inspected the museum to make sure that there was no offensive art. They might lose their jobs. A good life is one where no one thinks that you ever piss or shit. In the empty frames were the reasons why the art was confiscated.
Jasper Johns: for desecrating the flag
Michelangelo: for being a homosexual
Mary Cassatt: for painting nude children
Vincent van Gogh: for contributing to psychedelia
George O’ Keeffe: for painting cow skulls (the dairy industry complained)
Pablo Picasso: for apparently urinating on his sculptures, with the help of his children, to achieve the desired patina
Edward Hopper: for repressed lust
Jeff Koons: for offending Michael Jackson
All ceramists were gone, for working with clay. It was too much like playing with shit.
All glass blowers became extinct for it was too much like a blowjob.
All art from cultures that didn’t believe in one male god was banned for being blasphemous.
We looked for the show of Early American Quilts but it had been taken down. One guard said that a period stain was found on one. Besides, you can imagine what happened under those quilts at night.
Since the Confiscation of Art occurred, an Art Propaganda Army was started by the government. Last month, the National Assignment of the Army Artists was to make Dan Quayle look smart. For the Army Writer, the assignment was to make the Stealth Bomber as important as a microwave oven. Musicians were asked to write a tune, the HUD scandal was no big deal, like taking sugar packets from a cafe. Dancers were to choreograph a dance showing that the Iran-Contra affair was as harmless as your dog going into your neighbor’s yard. And filmmakers were asked to make films about homelessness, poverty and AIDS showing that God had a plan for us all.
But no art came out.
No art was made.
Newspapers became thin and stopped printing because there was no criticism. There was nothing to gossip about. Schools closed, for learning got in the way of patriotism. You couldn’t experiment, for that was the way of the devil.
There was no theory. No academia. No debate teams. No Jeopardy.
Everyone became old overnight. There was no more reason for anything. Everything became old and gray. Everyone had blue-gray skin like the colors of bones, unfriendly seas and navy bean soup.
And then the Punishers, the Executioners, the Judges of Creativity grew weary, for there was no creativity left to condemn. So they snorted and squawked, but they died in their boredom. All that was printed in the newspapers, journals and magazines was the phrase, I Don’t Know. All actresses and actors were gone from TV, except for Charlton Heston. Charlton did TV shows 24 hours a day.
One day Jesse Helms was having some guests over from Europe. A dignitary, a land developer and a king. Mrs. Helms asked them where they’d like to go in America. The king said, “Disneyland.” Mr. Helms said “Oh, that was closed down when we saw Disney’s filmFantasia.”
So the guests said,”Nathan’s Hot Dogs in Coney Island.” Mr. Helms answered, “Sorry, but hot dogs are too phallic. Nathan’s is history.”
“Well,” the guests said, “we’d like to go to The Museum of Modern Art. And if we can’t go there, why come to America?”
Mr. Helms was stuck. He wanted everyone to think he was cool, having Europeans visit him. But he had an idea. He’d make art to put back in the museum. He’d get George Bush and Buckley and some other conservative allies to come over and make some art on the White House lawn. So he called all of his cronies to come over and make some art. And everyone came because it was better than watching Charlton Heston on TV. Mr. Helms looked all over for art supplies. They came up with scissors and house paint and laid it all out for their friends to express themselves. When the friends arrived, they were scared to make art for they never had before. Never even used a crayon. But then a child picked up a crayon and drew a picture of her cat having babies. Then she drew a picture of her father hitting her. Then a picture of her alone and bruised. The mother looked at the pictures and cried and told the daughter she didn’t know what happened to her. The child screamed out, “Draw your dreams! Draw your nightmares!”
Everyone started making pictures of houses on fire, monsters; trees became penises; pictures of making love with someone of the same sex, of being naked on street corners, of pain and dirty words and things you never did in real life.
For thirteen days and nights everyone drew and drew nonstop. Some started telling stories, writing poems. Neighbors saw the art making and joined in. Somehow pretend was back in. Somehow expression sprung up from nowhere.
But then the Confiscation Police arrived and they took everyone away. (The father of the child who drew the father hitting the child complained.) Everyone was arrested. They even arrested Jesse Helms, for he was painting his soul out, which was hate and envy and crime and darkness and pain. And they threw him into the slammer. He was tried for treason and lost. On his day of execution his last words were:
IT WAS ONLY ART.