Forty Whacks

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

Arizona State University President Michael Crow's acting more like Dean Vernon Wormer all the time.

Sighing and shaking his head like the Animal House character at the antics of his campus charges, I can almost hear him bellowing: "Looks like somebody forgot that there's a ban on alcoholic beverages! You've bought it this time, buster! No more fun of any kind!"

New Times recently published a cover story about Crow's war against ASU's fraternities and drinking on campus ("Greek Weak," September 23). Unlike the countless pitched battles the movie's Dean Wormer lost against Delta House, Crow's winning his.

And Crow isn't stopping at pouring cold brewski on the frat boys' efforts to express themselves.

His administration's now enforcing a ban on signs (read: political posters) in campus windows just in time for the third presidential debate at Gammage Auditorium on October 13.

That's right, Crow's not only killing the kegger tradition of wild fraternity parties, his office is prohibiting college students -- once the very essence of the protest movement in this country -- from expressing their views on the presidential race. Not under his roof!

Seems decorations of any kind in campus windows have been prohibited by ASU for years, but the ban is rarely enforced. The Crow administration has cracked down on students expressing themselves via their dorm-room windows in just the last few months.

How convenient. Apparently, too many John Kerry signs might pop up in those windows, and Republicans might see them -- the theory being that college students are mostly lefties, and wouldn't it be unfair for the campus to seem partisan on the eve of the big debate?

And wouldn't it be unfair if Republicans had to see a passel of rude-ass demonstrators, as well?

See, protesters in all likelihood would be expressing their outrage over the war in Iraq and at the president who put us there. This would disrupt the nonpartisanship of the sacred debate, and nobody wants to put President Bush through that. As Duhbya dumbly drummed into everybody's head during the first debate, he's had to do lots of "hard work" with this Iraq thing. So placard-carrying '60s-style protesters would be the last thing he'd want to deal with.

Alakazam, a zone for protesters -- nicely labeled the "Speakers' Corner" -- has been set up on campus well away from Gammage.

It's all so controlled. You can bet that Michael Crow will do everything possible to keep anything controversial from happening on his debate watch.

Jerry Rubin's turning over in his grave.

This isn't to say that our very own Dean Wormer hasn't had his patience tried by Blutarskys, Otters and Flounders of a different stripe on his orderly desert campus.

Yeah, he's had to deal harshly with his own Delta House -- the ASU Art Museum.

Just when things seemed to be going swimmingly -- the glorious debate was on its way to Tempe and preparations for it were on schedule -- Crow got word that the girls and boys at the museum were putting on an exhibition in conjunction with the big event featuring political art from around the country.

Which would've been fine -- except that nearly every piece those rapscallion curators were securing for the "Democracy in America" exhibition was anti-Dubya, anti-war. You know, the kind of stuff that could make the university seem partisan.

The kind of stuff that could create the kind of molehill that Republicans in powerful places could make a mountain over.

This was not Michael Crow's beautiful life.

Then came a story on the museum's plans for the exhibition ("Heil to the Chief," July 1) by New Times staff writer Joe Watson (who later went on to do the aforementioned fraternities piece criticizing Crow as the ultimate crackdown artist of university presidents). The show's proposed lineup of artists was based on a press release provided by John Spiak, the museum's curator.

To say the shit hit the fan after Watson's article -- the first of two he wrote on the exhibition -- would be putting it mildly.

Crow wanted answers. In a July 7 e-mail to Milton Glick, ASU's executive vice president and provost, and Robert Wills, dean of the university's Herberger College of Fine Arts, he wrote, "We heard about potential concerns regarding the exhibit from the team managing the debates."

He went on, "On whose authority was an exhibit linked to the debates pursued?" Insisting on seeing a story board for the exhibition, he groused, "I don't like surprises that seem to be potentially negative to the overall image of fairness and impartiality that we must take as [an] institution."

The day before, Wills had written an e-mail to College of Fine Arts public information officer Stacey Shaw, museum director Marilyn Zeitlin, and Spiak, saying, "I can assure you -- from concerned legislators to university administrative folk -- there is the highest level of concern [about the exhibition] that I have ever seen in forty years of dealing with controversy."

Wills added, "This [should be] an exhibition about Democracy in America. It is not an exhibition about what artists think of the president."

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.

Zeitlin asserted that Watson called the original concept for the show "Bush-bashing," when it was Phoenix artist Colin Chillag, quoted in Watson's first piece, who said that. She claimed that Watson said certain artworks had been cut from the exhibition that hadn't been cut -- when the writer never said those particular works were eliminated. She contended that Watson shouldn't have written about the show before the "curatorial process" was complete, when it was her own curator who'd handed out a press release listing the artists the museum originally planned to include. Suffice it to say, Zeitlin's Ninth Commandment (Eighth if you're Catholic) sins are too numerous to list here.

As for Watson's alleged sins, the Censorship Coalition's Mintcheva wasn't buying much of what Zeitlin claimed. "The internal e-mail correspondence we were sent . . . reveals quite a tense process of selection and 'balancing' [before the exhibition opened]," she wrote in response to Zeitlin's self-righteous rant. "In light of this correspondence, some of what you wrote in the present letter appears slightly disingenuous."

Robbie Conal's work wound up in the show, but the bottom line is, art considered anti-Bush was cut and work considered anti-Kerry was put in. The result is that the dinky exhibition even contains editorial cartoons from the East Valley Tribune posing as freakin' art.

So why would Crow be so concerned about putting up such a nonpartisan pre-debate front? Here's a theory:

Conservative Arizona legislators and Bush administration grant purveyors could get all exorcised over what they'd perceive as a pro-John Kerry exhibition at the ASU Art Museum, and Crow's efforts to continue turning ASU into a premier research institution could be affected. Particularly if Bush were reelected.

Also, although I fear it's just an excuse for certain high-handed tactics, ASU officials have cautioned that the Commission on Presidential Debates might pull the plug on the ASU location if it detected campus partisanship.

Oh, here's another thing Zeitlin accused Watson of writing that he didn't write. In her effort to ingratiate herself with Crow, she said Watson contended wrongly that pressure from the Crow administration had forced her to censor the exhibition. Watson didn't say that. He said only that Zeitlin had censored it.

But, Marilyn, I'm saying that now. I mean, if Crow and his cronies didn't censor the exhibition, then why didn't they just leave the selection of art to the experts? Only a frightened fool would contend that the museum planned all along to balance the show, much less that ASU's Dean Wormer wasn't behind it all.

E-mail rick.barrs@newtimes.com, or call 602-229-8447.

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