Guest columnist Gerard Simonette: Arts council should have stood firm

  • Doris Madsen holds her piece 400 years later #4 that has become the subject of criticism from Jason Montgomery resulting in the cancellation of the Northampton Arts Council biennial show which was scheduled to open at Forbes Library. GAZETTE file photo

Published: 10/7/2021 1:36:21 PM

It was quite unfortunate to read that the Northampton Arts Council has been cowed into canceling its Biennial arts exhibit due to a complaint based on “woke” extremism.

Jason Montgomery, a local artist of Chicano/Indiginous descent, whose own submitted artwork was not selected, took exception to a print from artist Doris Madsen that was accepted. What Mr. Montgomery found objectionable was Ms. Madsen’s depiction of Native Americans as ghostlike figures, which he claims to be an example of “genocide art,” which in his mind expresses the “notion of erasure, that Native Americans have been completely wiped out.”

Ms. Madsen, on the other hand, states that she was attempting to express sympathy with the continued plight of Native Americans due to 400 years of racism, white supremacy and suppression. What this amounts to is just a difference of opinion, not a hate crime. It is surely no reason to censor this art, or for the exhibit to be cancelled, leaving 60 artist participants out in the cold.

The Arts Council should have stood its ground and explained that art is an expressive medium open for a wide range of interpretation, and that any piece of art can arouse positive, negative, or indifferent feelings.

They should have countered his criticism that the selection system was based on the opinion of mostly white judges and biased against Native Americans. The facts being that of the three judges employed, one was Latina, and one was an Asian American, and that the judging was done through a “blind admission” process where the judges rate works without reference to an artist’s background.

The Art’s Council further discredited itself by issuing a statement seemingly accepting Mr. Montgomery’s designation of Ms. Madsen’s work as “genocide art,” and by not objecting to Mr. Montgomery’s pejorative and ageist labeling of Ms. Madsen as “an old white woman.” This whole issue is part of a disturbing trend in the country which is allowing would be modern “Puritans” to squelch free speech, harshly punish those who may have uttered something foolish as a youth, intimidate creativity, and to cancel, due to some minor imperfection, what up to now have been revered elements of our culture.

Of course true injustices in our history and culture need to be examined and addressed (removing statues of Robert E, Lee, a traitor to the nation, is a good example of this), but excess zeal can lead to losing sight of reason (for example, calls in some quarters to expunge memorials to the likes of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln).

The Northampton Arts Council should take the side of reason and live up to its mission as a supporter, not censor of the arts, by defending the works it has deemed to be worthy of being in the exhibit. Should Mr. Montgomery’s work be selected for a future exhibit the council should likewise back up his work.

Gerard Simonette lives in Northampton.

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