I was stunned when I first heard about the "settlement" of the Brooklyn College MFA students' cases against the City of New York, the NYC Parks Department and Brooklyn College, cases which had cited First Amendment violations and property damages. I haven't even been able to bring myself to write about it until now, more than ten days later.
The eighteen students whose Master of Fine Arts thesis show was summarily shut down on May 4, 2006 by a Parks official, had their work removed from the gallery and damaged by their own College shortly thereafter.
After a full year of spent filing complex suits and presenting arguments, including negotiations between the students' lawyers and lawyers representing New York City the entire affair has ended with something like a squeak or a whimper.
The students (and one professor) each received $750 from the City, and the head of the Brooklyn Parks Department, the self-appointed public censor, issued a written statement which some have described as an "apology". Neither Brooklyn College itself nor any official connected with the school has had to do anything. In fact no one has lost her or his position in the City or the College. Oh yes, the settlement also required the City to pay the fees of the students' lawyers the amount of $42,500.
The students had decided not to file a separate suit against Brooklyn College after being told that they would have to secure other lawyers, and after being persuaded that a suit against the school which asked for compensation for the physical damage to their art works would have been ugly. In any event they weren't interested as a group in the cost and distraction of pursuing any further suit; they also don't appear to have ever regarded their case as simply a matter of compensation for material damages.
Of course it was never about money, so it seems to me that makes the piddling $750 figure ridiculous on the face of it.
I'm concerned about the fact that there really is no apology in the Parks chief's statement (it's more like the familiar "if anyone was offended . . ."), and that no institution has had to admit error, no official has been sacked, and none has fallen on his or her sword.
No principle has been upheld except that of the authority of the authorities.
Oh, yes, the "apology", issued on city of New York Parks & Recreation letterhead, reads as follows:
Statement of defendant Julius Spiegel, Brooklyn Borough commissioner of New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, in connection with the Settlement of Cohen, et. al. v. City of New York, et. al., 06-cv-2975 (CBA) (SMG).
"While I had no role in the removal and subsequent damage to Plaintiffs' artwork by others, I acknowledge my responsibility for ordering the closing of the Plaintiffs' art exhibit at the Brooklyn War Memorial, and for thereby setting in motion actions that led to the damage of Plaintiffs' artwork, which a reviewing court might find constituted a violation of the student-exhibitors' First amendment rights. Whatever the outcome in court might have been, I apologize to the Brooklyn College art students who spent long hours and considerable effort in creating their artwork and in mounting their exhibition at the Brooklyn Memorial site."
Now I know I wasn't one of the victims in this case (except in the sense we are all victims of censorship and the violation of intellectual and artistic property), and I wasn't privy to the discussions which preceded the announced settlement, but I mourn what has happened, or what has not happened, and I want to make a very few more general observations:
- A city which thinks of itself as cultured and sophisticated doesn't let its functionaries shut down art exhibitions because of personal hang-ups about their nasty bits.
- No art school is worthy of the name if it fails to defend its students' rights of expression and in fact callously destroys the creative work they produce in its shelter.
- Constant artists, and constant art institutions, artists and institutions with real integrity, do no look the other way when their colleagues or those they serve are attacked or humiliated for their art.*
Of the entire local and national arts community, aside from some good words from a few bloggers, these students received written or vocal support only from their own College faculty, the CUNY faculty, the College Art Association and the President of the School of Visual Arts. The Brooklyn Museum was approached directly, because of its own struggle with censorship (when it had received an enormous amount of outside support), and its reply was something to the effect that the institution would no longer be getting involved in anything of this sort.
[image from timesonline]