The Whisper Years

The once-raucous People's Art Show now barely makes a peep.

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Hall of tame: Hearts, flowers, and Bob Marley have - replaced the incendiary "Jesus Wall."
Hall of tame: Hearts, flowers, and Bob Marley have replaced the incendiary "Jesus Wall."

Please forgive Robert Thurmer if he seems a bit underwhelmed. The number of paintings of flowers and windmills is up at this year's People's Art Show. The "dick count," on the other hand, is way, way down.

"In previous years, we had several dozen penises," says the curator of the Cleveland State University Art Gallery. "Now, there's only two or three."

This poor showing of phalluses is an indication that holding the First Amendment to the fire is definitely gauche these days. The no-holds-barred exhibit at CSU used to thumb its nose at propriety. It was a spirited, freewheeling forum that encouraged artists to revel in their naughty side, to loosen up in ways they wouldn't for more "important" shows.

But with increasing restrictions placed on personal freedom in the name of patriotism, the People's Art Show has become a pastel version of its effervescent former self. After a series of controversies nearly a decade ago, the university started placing restrictions on the show, which have only helped foster the hearts-and-teddy-bears tone.

"It's no longer the kind of radical political forum that it once was," says Thurmer. "It's much more about aesthetics, about beauty and style and sensibility, and less about making political statements. It's so tame that hardly anybody pays attention anymore."

The inclusiveness of the show hasn't changed. Anyone can enter up to two pieces -- and pretty much everyone who enters gets in, unless the work actually qualifies as a criminal offense. "We don't accept paintings by elephants or cats," says Thurmer. "But if you're human, if you're part of the species, you can participate." As far as placement in the gallery goes, no distinction is made between amateur and professional creations, so an exquisite raku-glazed chafing dish could very well be set right next to a lump of Play-Doh with two holes poked in it.

From its start in 1983 until 1992, the show was held every year. But that changed after a Cleveland man named Stephen Bostwick submitted a semi-nude drawing of a teenage girl who had been abducted and later found murdered by her boyfriend.

In keeping with the show's strict egalitarian principles, the distasteful rendering was hung amid tenderhearted dog portraits and sweeping abstract canvases. None too happy about sharing wall space with such crud, surrounding artists tipped off the media to the work's relatively inconspicuous location. TV reporters descended on the scene, proclaiming the death of apple pie and decency.

Newspaper and TV pundit Dick Feagler worked up a predictable outrage, bashing the show in a series of columns. "Nobody is denying the right of some ar-teest to fill a tank car at a sewage plant and put a frame around it," he wrote. "But nobody has the 'right' to get such travesties displayed in a university gallery." All the attention brought out curiosity-seekers, and the gallery racked up its highest attendance ever.

Cowed by the ensuing backlash, the university administration changed the show to a biennial, in the hope that longer stretches between dispatches from the hoi polloi would defuse controversy. It worked. "When it was annual, artists would encounter something they might want to respond to, and they had a year to get something on canvas," says Thurmer. "If it's two years, the attention span is not that long. And by the time the show rolls around again, the society has moved on in terms of what's important."

In the past, entrants positively ached to take home the coveted Jesse Helms Award for Most Outrageous Work. They skewered presidents and senators, placed an American flag at the gallery entrance as a welcome mat, dressed up former Congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar in Virgin Mary raiment, and did a "desk of Clarence Thomas" installation with a real pubic hair on the Coke can.

This time around, however, there's no trophy for audacity (the university worried that it fanned the flames) and nary a still life or mixed-media sculpture commenting on the botched election of 2000, Congress's zero tolerance for schoolkids who skip the Pledge of Allegiance, or Catholic priests sexually abusing children.

Gone, too, is the show's celebrated "Jesus Wall," where artists tried to out-blaspheme each other with mini-Popes waving from atop cans of Campbell's soup and apostles drinking Gatorade at the Last Supper.

Terry Durst, a sculptor and bad boy of this year's warm and fuzzy show for spelling out "super-cali-fag-alistic-sex-pia-li-do-cious" in pink foam letters, says he started noticing galleries censoring his own work in the early '90s. That was shortly after Dennis Barrie, then the curator of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, was arrested for showing Robert Mapplethorpe's work, and the NEA began to impose standards of decency on artists receiving its grant monies.

"I just kind of woke up one day, and it seemed that it was all changed," Durst says, noting that he wasn't allowed to put an obscured nude collage of himself in the window of a local gallery. "But it's hard for me to say, because I don't find anything controversial. I think artists should address things like that. I've never seen anything at the People's Art Show that shocked me."

Of course, only some of the late, lamented shocking political commentary was actually funny and smart; plenty more was reactionary or just plain lame. But it didn't matter, because the point of the People's Art Show has never been "Let's show some great work," but rather "Let's include everybody and see what happens." It attempts to blur the artificial line between high and low art, forcing each piece to succeed on its own merit, without a curator's hand or a big name behind it. It also challenges qualified notions of free speech by making good on its all-or-nothing claim of being uncensored. "You're either uncensored or you censor," says Thurmer. "There's no in-between."

In an ironic turn, by being the most popular show on the gallery's calendar, it also demonstrates how people generally ignore art unless it offends them in some way. Even though we may rail against works that grab us by the shoulders and shake us, we apparently want to be shocked -- and maybe that realization, and not the art itself, is what's so dark and disturbing.

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