First They Came for Michelangelo
First they came for Michelangelo, and I did not speak out—because I was not an artist.
In March, a school principal in Florida was forced to resign after a parent objected to a lesson on the Renaissance that included Michelangelo’s statue of the hero in the biblical tale of David and Goliath, whose nudity the parent considers pornographic.
April Bey, "Die Mad," 2019, Ghanaian/Chinese wax fabric, acrylic paint, colored pencil, and glitter on canvas. Currently on view at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo: Lynn Trimble. Bey's work examines racism, systemic oppression, and colonial trauma.
The incident called to mind a famous saying referencing complacency and complicity in Nazi Germany, which is posted on a wall inside the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Attributed to German theologian Martin Niemöller, it reads as follows:
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”
The words reference people, of course, rather than art. And I’m certainly not implying here that the importance of art rivals the inherent worth of humanity, although some have made the case for an inextricable relationship between the two, such that one really can’t exist without the other. While the dangers of othering and apathy conveyed so profoundly in these words should prompt us first to actively fight prejudice, hate, and genocide, they should also call us to challenge ideas, laws, and practices that limit creative expression and access to art in all its forms.
Thus far, literature has taken center stage in the performative — read artificial — outrage of politicians who’ve sought to ban books in schools and public libraries while claiming they’re seeking to protect youth from so-called sexually explicit materials and grooming.
Images of classroom bookshelves emptied or concealed by teachers fearing reprisal for exposing students to books that might be deemed inappropriate have flooded the public sphere of late, primarily in Texas and Florida, where books (including many written by LGBTQ+ authors or people of color) are being banned for content involving race, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
Patrick Martinez, "All Talk, No Action (Chief Joseph)," 2019, neon on plexiglass. Previously exhibited at Tucson Museum of Art. Photo: Lynn Trimble. Martinez's work addresses equity, empathy, and humanity.
Kenneth Tam, "Silent Spike," 2021, two-channel HD video, sound. Previously exhibited at MOCA Tucson. Photo: Lynn Trimble. Tam's video examines the intersections of masculinity, race, and labor.
In one Texas county, some officials and residents have suggested the extreme measure of closing public libraries if book bans aren’t in place, a position that’s been countered by a judicial ruling requiring that banned books be returned to library shelves. Books and art are hardly the only targets. Drag performance is also on the right wing chopping block, the political rhetoric so hostile as to make it out to be the root of all evil. The Tennessee state legislature passed a ban on any performance that “appeals to prurient interest” that would have gone into effect April 1st had a federal judge not temporarily blocked it.
As Florida Republicans impose their “don’t say gay” agenda, it’s only a matter of time before more historical and contemporary artworks get removed from schools and other spaces. Just wait until conservatives begin poring through the art books — assuming any of the schools their children attend are fortunate enough to have even minimal arts education programs and materials. Given the prevalence of the human form in artworks spanning vast expanses of geography, culture, and history, it’s likely that Michelangelo’s work will only be the tip of the proverbial iceberg poised for a legal and cultural clash of titanic proportions.
For those who cherish the first amendment, deeming the “David” episode an outlier constitutes a gross failure of imagination that could have significant ramifications for children and other community members.
Jose Villalobos, "QueeRiders," 2022, three saddles, mixed media. Previously exhibited at Phoenix Art Museum.
Photo: Lynn Trimble. Villalobos's installation addresses toxic masculinity.
What if art bans begin with artworks created by children? Will if be a surprise if the self-portraits drawn by transgender students, or drawings by students whose work depicts their same-sex or non-binary parents, comes down first?
Picture blank spaces on bulletin boards, where student artworks deemed inappropriate have been removed. Or empty chairs where transgender parents aren’t allowed to sit and read aloud for story time. Consider the message it would send those young artists and their peers, with democratic society already teetering on the precipice.
The same thing could happen in public libraries or city-own galleries if legislators or patrons seek to use big government to control the types of images they can display. Empty walls could soon enough echo empty bookshelves in some states. Perhaps this scenario sounds far-fetched at this point, like so many things that transpire in the early years of a society’s transformation towards tyranny.
It's not so difficult to imagine, when you recall an earlier generation’s censorship of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of nudes or Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ.” Or when you consider the absurdity of politicians arming their children with guns for family photos while claiming those same kids shouldn’t be subjected to a book with a lesbian hero.
Cydnei Mallory, "i woke up," photographs, 70" x 130". Previously exhibited at The Gallery at Tempe Center for the Arts. Photo: Lynn Trimble. Mallory's work explores stereotypes related to gender, sexuality, class, and the human body.
Knowing all this, what can artists and their allies do? Ramp up calls for more (and better) arts education. Run for office, whether the state legislature, city council, or local school board. Support artists in communities impacted by bans, artists being targeted because of their identity, and artists whose work elevates rights under attack such as reproductive freedom and marriage equality. Vote in every single election.
We absolutely need to support the people in harm’s way, but also remain vigilant for subtle or sudden shifts in the ways arts and culture is being drawn farther into this tumultuous landscape — not only because we love art, but also because we know the power of art to create space for all the beautiful differences and dialogue that’s essential to growing and sustaining a thriving democracy.
Doing nothing isn’t an option.
First they came for Michelangelo. . . .
Christopher Jagmin, "Carl, Gabriel, and Latisha," 2020, Debossed on letterpress, 22.5" x 16" each panel.
Courtesy the artist. Themes in Jagmin's work include fear, complicity, marginalization, sexuality, and religion.