Everyone is aware of the events that followed the dedication, but few people know what actually happened, that night. Because some of the things said that evening cast a shadow on the credibility of the Buffalo Arts Commission (BAC) I think it is worth examining the event here.
The ceremony was orchestrated by BAC executive director David More. More invited four speakers who made the kind of homages you expect to hear at these events: Currie said that Lawless should be "praised, not just for his work" on the installation, "but more importantly for his efforts to show through hard work and persistence he could garner and get together people from the private sector to donate and support his efforts as well as getting the permits and the government to cooperate for this. sculpture." Likewise, Dr. R. Bruce Johnstone, President of Buffalo State College, invited the crowd to see one of Lawless's works located on his campus because "what I think it represents is not only the talent and I think in this wonderful, playful, whimsical piece here we see more of that talent, but also Billie Lawless the citizen who makes it possible to put this public art in this city." Artist and University of Buffalo instructor Dwayne Hatchett directed his praise towards the city: "I congratulate it for continuing to be helpful in experimentation in art and to the idea of further developing artists and ideas.” Considering the glowing tone of these comments, I can only wonder why the media, which was quick to characterize Lawless as an irresponsible eccentric, wasn't so quick to ask these men if they had since reevaluated their opinions? .
But the most ambiguous statements that evening were made by BAC chairman Sam Magavern, who prefaced his introduction of the other speakers by saying "some great man, in talking about art, said that 'art is disturbing, science is reassuring'." Following the' lighting, a high-spirited moment with lots of applause and cheering, I asked Mr. Magavern about his insights into the piece. He said, "It is an unusual piece and people are going to be surprised how it grows on them, in my opinion." When I asked him if the piece would be controversial, he responded:
“As I said in opening, as one great man put it, art is disturbing
while science is reassuring.
I think it will be disturbing to many people, but I think it's like anything else that's new, it
should disturb and art itself is meant to disturb, not to be complacent, art, is something that
moves and moves you and moves along. It is interesting that art over the years, you know,
becomes a historical record of our society because you have to look at and you must
interpret it in the times it was created..”
These are stirring words, much more insightful and supportive than the words in a letter he subsequently sent to Lawless's donors (see attached letter).
Finally, I want to consider the words of BAC executive director David
More. He responded to my question about possible controversy by saying,
"I think most of the objections stemmed from a misunderstanding of the
piece. It's really lyrical and more whimsical and kind of humorous." Curiously,
More put the "objections" to
Green Lightning in the past tense as though there were questions raised before the ceremony. But within a half-hour of talking with me, More would be telling newsman Dan Hausle of Channel 7's "Eyewitness News" that Lawless had misrepresented his work, that what he showed the BAC was not what people saw lit up on the Elm-Oak arterial that night.
What followed the lighting is history. Shortly after the dignitaries and most of the crowd left, the vice-squad showed up, scouring over the now unplugged sculpture with their flashlights, looking for what officer John Dugan described as the "male anatomy." (As a bizarre twist, Lawless could also have been arrested for parking on the grass if he hadn't left when he did because an officer had given him warning to move his car and later on; the same officer mentioned the incident to someone in the crowd.) The next day, a wrecking crew showed up. On the following Tuesday, ignoring a truce of sorts worked out between the parties, a tree-removal crew dismantled two of the panels and would have removed all four if it were not for the restraining order issued by State Supreme Court Justice Vincent Doyle.
Offended by what it perceived as duplicity on Lawless's 'part, the city seemed not to care that it might damage the artwork or that it might do even more serious damage to its reputation as an arts and cultural center. Promoting that reputation is clearly one of the roles of the BAC, but its actions have seriously hurt its own credibility.
Consider the letter sent by Chairman Magavern to Lawless's patrons. How else can it be interpreted except as a ploy to shift responsibility from the BAC to the artist and ensure that these donors put pressure on Lawless to take down his work? The letter is full of doubtful claims and unsettling statements. Mr. Magavern writes, "The sculpture has not been damaged." As a witness to the dismantling, I saw the crew cutting apart sections of the steel structure with torches, parts that will have to be replaced by the artist. In a December 1st article in the Buffalo News, Lawless pointed out water damage to the panels as well as structural damages to the installation. Lawless has recently set the damage figure at $13,300.
Mr. Magavern, in explaining that the BAC "did not see or pass upon" the neon figures in Green Lightning, explains, "This picture conveys an entirely different and unrelated picture that is pornographic and vulgar." Interestingly, the people at Sculpture Outdoors/1984, in Philadelphia, saw the same materials as the BAC, including the maquette. with its acetate drawings of the pesky neon figures, arid they did not find the work salacious. And neither did Mr. Magavern himself, as is reported in Friday, November 16th Buffalo News. Concerning the work at the opening, Mr. Magavern is quoted as saying: "'I just can't believe there's anything salacious there' " (but to be fair, the full quote reads: " 'But if there's any doubt about it, we'll have to take care of it right away'.") However, on Thursday, the 15th, Mr. Magavern himself raised the issue of how .Green Lightning would be disturbing to some people; for that evening, at least, that didn't seem to be a problem for him.
But the oddest statement in the letter is this one: "The average person, including myself and others familiar with art, and I believe the general public, might not have seen its vulgar connotation on first viewing. However, when pointed out and focused on by the television and press, the new picture thus superimposed is unmistakably objectionable ...." Contrary to Mr. Magavern's assertion, the neon was absolutely obvious to everyone present atthe opening, but no one was shocked (again, to refer to the News article on November 16,, Mr. Magavern pointed out that "several dignitaries gathered at Wednesday's [sic] ceremony were not offended by, the sculpture [sic]..."). It was only after the television media exploited their news footage sensationalizing the work by labelling it pornographic, that Lawless was attacked. Mr. Magaven's comments about the disturbing quality of art are probably genuinely felt, but the damning assertionsthat the work is "vulgar" and "pornographic" reflect the pressure brought to bear on him by public opinion (" 'If people see something in it that's wrong, we have to change it'," again from the News, November 16).
Frankly, Mr. Magavern's statement raises a disturbing question: as the agency that is supposed to evaluate what is acceptable public artwork, isn't it BAC'S responsibility to carefully examine projects they approve?. Does the BAC really need local TV news to help them make aesthetic judgments? Can they really get out' of a bad judgment by publically attacking an artist they sponsored?
Mr. Magavern isn't the only one who changed his tune once the heat was turned up. At the ,Tuesday evening dismantling, David More was now calling the piece a "hoax" (what happened to the possibility of a misunderstanding?). When I asked him how it was possible that he could have followed this project through City Hall for close to two years and not be aware. of what he was getting himself into, More claimed that Lawless had cleverly concealed his intentions: "To the best of my recollection, I saw no indication of anything like what was portrayed in neon once it was turned on ...it would have been an obligation on the part of Billie Lawless to come out and tell people it had a potentially suggestive nature. He did not do that." More may not have seen the figures, but according to another News article, dated December 2, the neon figures are indeed on the slide documentation Lawless used in raising funds (the News article points out that the figures are difficult to see to the "unaided eye." Interestingly, More, in an article on November 30, wouldn't reveal if the BAC had pictures of the maquette because of the impending court case).
It is quite possible that at a meeting like the one held by the BAC to approve Green Lightning the figures on Lawless's maquette might have been obscure. Someone who attended that meeting and who was familiar with the piece told me that she had not seen them. And neither if first did Marsha Moss, the director of Sculpture Outdoors 1984, in Philadelphia. However, what happened when she did see them is very revealing.
During a phone conversation, Ms: Moss explained tome that the figures were brought to her attention by a city official who is involved with the arts and who noticed them on Lawless's documentation. As she explained, "Billie's maquette is so clearly what it is that you couldn't pass it off after a second look."
The work had been accepted for public display last summer. Was she concerned about possible negative reactions? "Yes, it occurred to me. I talked to city officials about it. They agreed that it shouldn't be rejected because of its imagery. The city was not involved in its selection. I showed them the slides because I needed their support and encouragement. There was no hesitancy."
She further explained that there was discussion about the piece's imagery: "Nobody thought it was offensive”.
"I considered its artistic merit, and I didn't make an issue of possible public response. If a piece isn't noticed, it isn't worth. putting up. I would not have expected the kind of public response it got in Buffalo."
Interestingly, Moss did not feel that Lawless had to be explicit in identifying the figures as penises. "They are semi-abstracted. If he calls them 'abstract figures celebrating life,' that's his prerogative."
Clearly, the BAC does not share Moss's attitudes. It now remains for the courts to decide whether Billie Lawless intentionally misrepresented his work to the city. But the fact that the BAC would hold a public ceremony and then go on record attacking an artist they supported, not question the reckless actions of the city, send correspondence to the artist's contributors and deny his work was damaged, all of these actions are questionable. Do artists really want their work publicly represented by these people?