Forty Whacks

ASU's museum was forced to censor its political art show, but did its director have to bend over?

Even as Watson was preparing his story, university officials were worried silly about what it might say. In a June 25 e-mail from Shaw to Wills, the flack detailed a conversation she'd had with museum director Zeitlin in which they'd discussed when New Times might publish Watson's original piece, and about possibly delaying the August 31 opening of the exhibition until well after the debate:

"We talked about more balance [in the show]," Shaw wrote. "I gave her my impression of what Crow's reaction/questions might be. I think I got my point across that at present it's way too focused on Bush and the current war. [Zeitlin] hates the idea of having to tell some artists they're out; I countered that the ball was in her court then to find a way to balance it."

And after the 500-pound gorilla, Crow, weighed in, Zeitlin ran around maniacally trying to balance "Democracy in America," all right! I think it's fair to surmise from the e-mails above that her artsy-fartsy head might've been on Crow's dinner plate if she hadn't.

All the while, however, Zeitlin insisted that she would only add balance to the show. She told Watson she wouldn't "pull any pieces" procured by the museum for the exhibition.

Well, that didn't turn out to be the case.

Zeitlin wound up wanting to please her bosses more than she wanted to hang on to her integrity, so she caved in to the pressure from the top. In the end, she had no more courage than those fraternity boys Crow's been emasculating.

Still, it's a little bit like blaming Saddam Hussein for 9/11 to blame Zeitlin for the watered-down exhibition that opened on schedule at the end of August as "Democracy in America: Political Satire Then and Now" (note the title alteration). Like I've been arguing here, Michael Crow's fostered a climate at ASU where the notion of academic freedom -- indeed, freedom of any kind -- is becoming a joke.

At the risk of sounding like an alternative-newspaper editor, all this reminds me of how a certain country used to make its artists produce only work that was acceptable to the state or face exile to Siberia.

It remains to be seen whether Crow will make sure there's a Siberia in Zeitlin's future. After all, she embarrassed him by at first trying to let the chips fall where they may. At the outset, Zeitlin and the museum simply judged artworks on their merits, choosing what they thought was best. Guess what? Artists are mostly liberals, and political artists tend to lampoon whatever president's in power. To boot, there's a war going on that's unpopular among a throng of Americans. The result was an exhibition that would've been offensive to the Rush Limbaugh crowd.

Had it not been watered down.

Here's my gripe against Zeitlin: Watson's second article ("Bush League," August 19) accurately listed certain works considered anti-Bush that were to be cut from the exhibition to make way for works meant to add political balance. Since that time, Zeitlin's been blaming the messenger for something she did -- however reluctantly -- to pacify a pissed-off Crow.

Even to the point of writing a letter to Svetlana Mintcheva, the National Coalition of Censorship's director, in which she professes to want to "set the record" straight but only muddies it with errors of fact and ridiculous assertions that make her look like a kook (the full text of Zeitlin's missive is at www.ncac.org/issues/zeitlinletter.htm).

Instead of lashing out at the real culprit, Crow (which would be career suicide at ASU), she accuses New Times and Watson of "unethical journalistic practices" for publishing stories on the art show's becoming the political football it became at the expense of artistic integrity.

"The intention of the exhibition was defined by the curators, a decision that has been attacked not by the University administration but by a cynical journalist using the opportunity of this exhibition to create sensationalism," she spews to Mintcheva, whose organization's Web site had linked the two Watson pieces.

Way to kiss Crow's ass, Marilyn -- especially since some of the above e-mails from Crow and his direct underlings were also published in Watson's August 19 story, as was one from you demonstrating the degree to which you were willing to bend over to alter the show and save your neck:

"I didn't sleep last night. I realize what I sent last night as the 'balanced' list was still too heavy on the Bush-negative. We are going to eliminate [Robbie] Conal and two other pieces that go with his. By eliminating these three, we bring the con-Bush total to SIX, with the con-Kerry at FIVE. Adding a bunch of political cartoons and counting them as one . . . we should get this thing through. [Jim] Budde's pieces about oil are out, [Enrique] Chagoya's big piece is out and replaced by the [Ronald] Reagan piece from the collection, Ryan McNamara is out."

In her letter, Zeitlin ridiculously claims that Watson flubbed facts in his stories, when it's she who can't get it straight. She wrote to the Censorship Coalition that Watson "has attacked the University from a variety of perspectives, including a nasty portrait of . . . Michael Crow." Watson has never written a profile of Crow, and the ASU president refused to be interviewed for either of the museum articles or the frat piece.

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