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Pop-Art Portraits of President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg Censored in NYC

The liberals in the arts community howl when conservative Christians try to censor controversial art works that are highly offensive to their religious beliefs and values.

Artist Andres Serrano’s notorious “Piss Christ,” a color photograph of a crucifix in a glass of urine, has generated protests for two decades.  In 1999, the Brooklyn Museum of Art displayed artist Chris Ofili’s  ”The Holy Virgin Mary,” a painting depicting a Black Madonna surrounded by images of female genitalia cut from pornographic magazines and elephant dung formed into shapes resembling cherubim.  When Mayor Guiliani cut  funding to the Museum,  the New York City arts community protested  in support of freedom of artistic expression. Four years later, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg ‘s company, Bloomberg LP, was. Chris Olifi’s financial sponsor at the 2003 Venice Bienele art exhibition.  In 2010,  David Wojnarowicz’s AIDS inspired “Anty Christy,” a four minute video of  a crucified Christ being eaten alive by a swarm of ants, was removed from a Smithsonian institution exhibit under pressure from Congress. The decision to remove the video was met with protests from the arts community, a threat to withhold private sector funding to the Smithsonian and an offer by The New Museum in Manhattan’s lower east side to exhibit the video in New York.

Now that Obama worship has achieved a cult-like religious status, artists whose work expresses criticism of Obama find themselves facing an increasing tide of censorship by his acolytes. Obama’s falling fortunes have made his defenders more sensitive to dissenting voices that question  Dear Leader’s failed policies and lack of leadership.  Last week  Red State  reported about prolific Twitter meme tweeter Tom Francois who was visited by two Secret Service agents simply because  of his prolific anti-Obama meme photos that he tweets to his many followers on Twitter.

Earlier this month artist Robert Preston’s pop-art exhibition “Seven Deadly Sins‘ – a politically themed collection of satirical portraits – was given the bum’s rush by the owners of Arlene’s Grocery, a popular cutting edge lower east side  arts venue.  Preston was ordered to remove the recently installed paintings only a day after an opening reception for the planned month-long exhibition.Preston believes, and the manager of Arlene’s Grocery confirmed, that the exhibition was ordered shut down because of the political message reflected in the paintings.  The portrait depicting the sin of pride shows an arrogant Obama, dressed as an Egyptian Pharaoh with his eyes closed and his face pointed skyward as a flock of drones flies overhead.  The sin of wrath is represnted by Preston’s portrait of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ‘big gulp’ propensity to usurp New Yorker’s autonomy. The sin of gluttony is represented by an anti-Wall Street themed  portrayal of Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, as an octopus with it’s tentacles firmly gripping the governmental agencies responsible for regulating the financial industry.

Banned pop-art portrait of President Barack Obama, dressed as an Egyptian Pharaoh, basking in the sub as drones fly overhead.
President Barack Obama, basking in the projected power of his drones, represents ‘pride.’ 
Robert Preston Bloomberg Pop-Art Portrait
Mayor Michael Bloomberg represents ‘wrath’ in an artist’s ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ painting series. 

Arlene’s website says that the arts venue regularly hosts punk and hard rock bands, as well as multi-media art exhibitions and other forms of performance art. According to The New York Daily News,  Arlene’s Grocery  is “visited by thousands of patrons, including celebrities and music industry icons such as Clive Davis, Mick Jagger, Bowie, Liv Tyler, Natalie Portman, Juaquin Phoenix, Ann Bancroft, Mel Brooks, William Dafoe, and many others.”  New York Magazine says that Arlene’s “[l]oyal hipsters provide a solid fan base assuring that the joint is rarely empty.” Preston’s political satire cut a little too deep for Arlene’s owner   who told The Daily News that the paintings were ‘too aggressive and too political” for the delicate sensibilities of the arts venue’s hipster clientele. Julia Darling, Arlene’s manager. told a reporter that the paintings “insults the viewer; it’s really kind of beating us over the head with a message.” 

Robert Preston’s ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ series briefly on display at Arlene’s

 Robert Preston removes his paintings from Arlene’s Grocery after the owners demanded he take them down. 

Manhattan artist Robert Preston removes his paintings from Arlene’s Grocery, after the music venue demanded he take them down
Robert Preston’s ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ series briefly on display at Arlene’s Grocery

Embarrassed by the local publicity, Arlene’s Grocery resorted to the default response of many Obama supporters when confronted with their malfeasance; they attacked Preston personally. His work was called ‘unsophisticated’ and they belatedly cited the poor quality of the paintings as the real reason they closed the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ exhibition. Preston’s pop-art portraits are only a small part of his eclectic portfolio, available for viewing on his website

His works include detailed paintings and drawings based on historic photographs. They are like a time machine, bringing the two dimensional subjects in the original photographs to life on canvas and paper.  Preston has a series on the execution by hanging of the Lincoln Conspirators,  portraits of nineteenth century Native Americans done in charcoal , and a haunting painting of David Koresh, embracing a young girl, that is taken from a video message recorded during the U.S. government’s 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.  Preston’s portfolio also includes an impressive series of Boston area true crime arrests, hoodlums criminals, police, accident victims, crime scenes, and homicides; all done in a photo-realistic style based on the photography of Robert’s father, Phil Preston, who worked as a news photographer for the Boston Globe in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s.

The power of popular art to move current events has been undisputed since Thomas Nast‘s cartoons in Harper’s Weekly helped topple the corrupt administration of Tammany Hall’s William “Boss” Tweed in the 1870’s.  More recently, Sheperd Fairey‘s hagiographic portrait of Senator Barack Obama became an iconic symbol of the 2008 presidential campaign., Andy Warhol’s 1973 series of pop-art portraits of Chairman Mao are still banned in China today.   In 1964 Andy Warhol‘s pop-art mural of gangster mug-shots, commissioned by the organizers of the 1964 World’s Fair, was famously painted over at the demand of Governor Nelson Rockeffeller.  The  long New York City tradition of politically-charged art offending powerful people should have resulted in a healthy respect for free expression within the local arts community, and a strong disinclination to censor the artistic free expression of others. 

Yet the new generation of limousine liberal, Obama-supporting members  of the New York arts scene understand the power of pop-art when used as a weapon of dissent, and they want to deny it to anyone they perceive as being a part of the ‘opposition.’ In her 1994 book, Outlaw Culture:Resisting Representations, feminist cultural critic and social activist Bell Hooks argued that “any progressive political movement grows and matures only to the degree that it passionately welcomes and encourages, in theory and in practice, diversity of opinion, new ideas, critical exchange, and dissent.” Unfortunately, Hooks’ call for “progressive political movements…to protect free speech” has not reached the Obama administration and its do-or-die-hard-core supporters.

Andy Warhol, Founding Collection, The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh. (© 2008 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / ARS, New York)
Andy Warhol, Founding Collection, The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh
(© 2008 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / ARS, New York)
Andy Warhol, Ads: Van Heusen (Ronald Reagan), 1985.
Andy Warhol, Ads: Van Heusen (Ronald Reagan),1985. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts,
New York; Founding Collection,The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA;
(© 2008 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts ARS, New York)

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