In 1989, the American artist Robert Sherer publicly displayed for the first time a selection of paintings from his graduate school thesis project and immediately incurred the wrath of local conservatives. His thesis, titled “Re-Presentations,” was comprised of oil paintings of male nudes in famous female poses, mocking the sexism of Western art history. Since that first controversy, the artist’s censorship battles in Ohio, Pennsylvania, his home state of Alabama, and most recently in South Carolina have established him among the most censored artists in the United States.
In addition to widespread national media coverage, his four incidents of censorship have been documented by many First Amendment advocacy groups and censorship watchdog organizations including The American Civil Liberties Union, ArtSave - People For The American Way, the Individual Visual Artist’s Coalition, Inc. and the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression. His 1995 out-of-court settlement of an ACLU-sponsored ten million dollar lawsuit against the Barnwell County Museum marks one of the few cases wherein an American artist has received financial recompense for a First Amendment violation.
Each of Robert Sherer’s four censorship incidents has been more intense, and his opponents better organized, than the last. Increasingly, the points of contention have had similar wording. “Sherer perverts God’s natural order by placing men in women’s positions” is the standard expression. The subtext of this statement seems to indicate a masked approval of heterosexual eroticism by the religious right. Through the years, it has also become evident that the Christian Coalition keeps itself apprised of the artist’s movements and targets his efforts to exhibit his art works outside the major metropolitan areas. As a result, Sherer’s attempts at art outreach to the suburban and rural communities are deliberately misrepresented as “the artist is here to recruit our youth to the homosexual lifestyle.” From the beginning of his gender-reversing thesis, it was never Sherer’s intention to create homoerotic images but rather to provide a feminist critique of art historical images. His appropriations of well-known picture compositions from such Neo-Classical and French Salon masters as Boucher, David, Ingres, Jerome, and Bougereau clearly reveal a serious artistic intent. The use of kitsch parody to elucidate and underscore important sociopolitical ideas is common in contemporary art. Sophisticated people are frequently shocked to find that these Sherer paintings have been censored. Denizens of the insular and urbane art world have a tendency to forget that just as beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, so too is “homoeroticism.” Any male nudity, even if it is portraying a scene from the Bible, is considered pornography by religious fundamentalists.
The primary purpose of this publication is to provide the reader with an account of the events that occurred before, during, and after each of Robert Sherer’s four incidents of censorship. It is our hope that these linear narratives will help to map some of the common courses that censorship dramas take and to illuminate some of the necessary mechanisms that must be in place for actual censorship to occur. It is also our hope that this publication will help garner recognition and support for the artist from the general public as well as from the arts community.
1. OHIO: In November of 1989, Robert Sherer, an Edinboro University of Pennsylvania M.F.A. candidate, was invited to participate in an exhibition titled “5 X Figurative” to be held at the B.K. Smith Gallery of Lake Erie College in Painesville, a suburb of Cleveland. The intention of the exhibition was to provide the viewer with a survey of visual inquiries into the human figure by five painters from the Great Lakes region.
Within hours of the show being hung on February 4, 1990, several university officials, including the president and the dean of Lake Erie College, began to voice their displeasure at the selection of works. Particularly offensive to them were the mock classical paintings of male nudes placed in famous poses by Robert Sherer. By the end of the day, all five of the artist’s paintings were removed from the gallery and stored in a basement.
Bonnie Selip, the curator of the “5 X Figurative” exhibition, argued with Greg Upton, the gallery director, that the removal of these works constituted censorship since it was clear that only male nudes had been removed. After a closed-door meeting with university officials, the gallery director subsequently removed a female nude and publicly took full responsibility for the censorship. His press statement read, “These paintings are of a sexual-political nature and might be considered offensive to some students who visit the gallery regularly.”
Many students and faculty, however, disagreed with the director’s paternalistic approach to curating and his willingness to play the scapegoat for the university’s upper echelon. On February 10, they began to circulate a petition calling for his resignation. They also launched a barrage of negative press coverage about the university and announced an upcoming protest rally to be held outside the student gallery to coincide with the annual Parent’s Visitation Day.
On February 18, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney contacted the two censored artists and offered legal representation. Four days later, with the threat of an imminent First Amendment violation lawsuit, university officials announced their intentions to re-hang the censored art for the remaining week of the exhibition. Sherer’s paintings were returned to the exhibit on February 22 and remained on display till the March 2, 1990 closing date without further incident.
2. PENNSYLVANIA: As with most university art departments, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania has a standard agreement between the university and its graduate art students that the university will pay for the production and mailing of student’s thesis exhibition invitation postcards. In return, the student agrees to work with a graphic designer and a printing company to insure the quality of the image produced. Of the approximately two thousand invitations that the university agrees to mail, eight hundred are slotted for an on-campus mailing to faculty and staff.
On April 7, 1992, Robert Sherer, a graduate painting student, consulted with his faculty committee concerning which of his thesis paintings would be best for his invitation postcard. Due to the awkward 3” x 5” format, it was decided that the only image that could fit without serious cropping was a painting titled “Sweet Dreams,” a standard academic male nude. Although there had been no problem with past mailings of student invitations, even such graphic images as a female nude lying spread-eagle on the ground with a pack of salivating dogs sniffing and licking her body, Sherer was cautious and concerned. In an effort to feel better about the upcoming mailing, the artist met with the local US Postmaster to discuss the matter. During this meeting the artist was assured that the US Postal Service would have no problem with mailing the card.
On June 6, three weeks before the scheduled exhibition reception and one week before the mailing list deadline, the Liberal Arts Dean, Dr. Robert Weber, informed the artist that the university was refusing to pay for the eight-hundred on-campus mailings. Sherer’s graduate faculty committee filed a formal letter of support for the artist. The contents of the letter firmly stated their disgust with the university’s decision and questioned how a liberal arts department could justify a clear violation of the First Amendment. As a direct result of this unanticipated proactive stance by the faculty, university officials met with Sherer in an attempt to settle the issue.
The artist eventually consented to an agreement wherein the university would pay for eight hundred off-campus addresses of his choice if he agreed not to further pursue the matter. Sherer chose eight hundred influential American art galleries to receive the controversial postcard. Why college administrators determined it prudent to mail the image to the general public, rather than its college-educated employees, remains a mystery.
As a consequence, word spread that an exhibit of graphic homosexual art was opening in the university’s student gallery. The rumor that “not even university faculty were allowed to see an image of the upcoming show” seemed to fuel people’s paranoia. The gallery was inundated with prank phone calls, several of which took the form of death threats to gay people. Other than the daily phone calls and the increased security, the exhibition opened on June 27 and closed on July 18, 1992 without further incident.
3. ALABAMA: Rarely does censorship occur within the commercial gallery setting because private-owned businesses are typically unencumbered by the use of government funding. On November 18, 1994, Studio 2030, a privately-owned gallery in Birmingham, held a reception to inaugurate the solo exhibition of its latest gallery artist, Robert Sherer. The exhibition’s reception was met with no controversy and some degree of fanfare due to it being the expatriated artist’s first exhibition in his home state in twenty years.
Two weeks later, on the morning of December 2, organizers for A Baby’s Place, an infant AIDS charity, arrived at the gallery to decorate for a fund-raiser to be held there later that evening. The charity’s executive director, Glenda Hollis, demanded that Studio 2030’s owner, Louis Hill, remove the Sherer paintings from the gallery. Ms. Hollis felt that the paintings of male nudes might offend potential donors to her AIDS charity. Mr. Hill disagreed, stating that the majority of donations come from the gay community. Ms. Hollis, angry that she had not been warned in advance of a scheduled exhibit of nude paintings, decided to take a radical approach to remedy the situation. According to her gallery rental contract, Ms. Hollis was allowed to decorate the gallery for the charity benefit. Her choice of decoration was to place large sheets of black plastic over the front and sides of all of the Sherer paintings on display throughout the gallery. Mr. Hill, realizing that he was trapped between two contractual agreements, had no choice but to allow Ms. Hollis to censor the work.
Later that evening the controversy fully erupted when donors realized that art works they had paid to see had been censored. Throughout the benefit, people arrived and then departed as a show of protest. The offense was particularly felt by the large amount of gay men present that considered the censorship yet another attempt to negate their existence. Many considered the censorship sexism since an exhibition of female nudes was left on display during the event. For several weeks afterward, people in the media questioned Ms. Hollis’ judgment and asked for her resignation. Their concern being that the executive director of an AIDS charity would be so willing to censor an exhibition of works by a gay artist.
The black plastic was removed from the paintings the next morning and the exhibition reopened without further incident. Ms. Hollis never admitted wrongdoing for her actions.
4. SOUTH CAROLINA: In December of 1994, Robert Sherer was contacted by Jennings Rountree, director of the Barnwell County Museum, to submit an exhibition proposal for the Spring 1995 roster. Sherer agreed to a March 5, 1995 show date. The Barnwell County Museum is a public museum within the environs of the affluent Savannah River Nuclear Power facility. It maintains a picture gallery specifically for traveling exhibits.
On March 7, two days after the show opened to the public, the museum board chained and padlocked the doors to the Sherer exhibition and covered the windows with paper. Ann Haygood, chair of the museum board, and Ann Loadholt, a member of the county council, stated to the press that the show was “too sophisticated for the museum” and demanded that Sherer retrieve his work immediately. On March 9, after threats of forced removal from museum board members, Jennings Rountree contacted the American Civil Liberties Union who then contacted Sherer with an offer to provide legal representation. Within two days, the ACLU filed a ten million dollar First Amendment violation lawsuit in federal court.
The museum board informed the ACLU that the show would reopen the next day and remain open for its projected running time of three weeks. As promised, the exhibition opened the next day, but with restricted entrance: only those with identification proving they were at least twenty one years old would be allowed to see the show. This action, although considered extreme by many, insulted local members of the Christian Coalition who felt that stronger action should have been taken. In the meantime, Jennings Rountree was forced to resign as director; the impending lawsuit having “created a hostile work environment.”
On March 17, as a result of increased pressure from the religious right and the county council, and in some instances one-in-the-same, the museum board permanently closed Sherer’s exhibit to the public. In a move which many observers saw as a clear indication of wrongdoing, a crew of furniture movers was brought into the museum at three o’clock in the morning to crate and remove the art works from the facility. For one week, the whereabouts of Sherer’s paintings was concealed from him and the ACLU attorneys. The art works resurfaced in the form of a forced shipment to the Lowe Gallery in Atlanta.
A year passed, filled with settlement negotiations and frequent communication breakdowns, during which the artist was not permitted to speak to the press by his lawyers. On March 10, 1996, all parties finally signed an agreement. The terms of the agreement provided the artist with an undisclosed monetary settlement and forced the museum to schedule a March 13 - March 18 exhibition of the censored paintings, a punitive gesture tantamount to an admission of guilt.
The aftermath of the settlement proved as interesting to First Amendment advocates as the year long legal battle. On March 10, three days before the reopening of the controversial show, a protest rally organized by ultraconservative groups was held outside the museum. William Carter, former chairman of the David Duke campaign and then chairman of the South Carolina Council of Concerned Citizens, gathered approximately fifty people with bullhorns and placards for the rally. A clash ensued when a group composed of approximately ten First Amendment and gay rights activists arrived to show support for the returning exhibition. Several activists and a news reporter were injured in the altercation.
The exhibition opened and closed without further incident. Robert Sherer continues to exhibit his art throughout the South. Jennings Rountree never returned to his position at the museum.
The primary sources of information for the four synopses within this publication are legal documents, radio and television transcripts, and press articles from the artist’s bibliography.
Private citizens, members of the press, First Amendment advocacy groups, censorship watchdog organizations, attorneys, and the family and friends of the artist contributed additional information.
The material within this publication was compiled, written, and edited by Richard Melvin, Shane Harrison, and Robert Sherer from December 5, 1996 to July 12, 1997.
People For the American Way • ARTSAVE • 2000 M Street, NW. Suite 400 • Washington, DC. 20036 • TEL.# (202) 467-4999
National Campaign for Freedom of Expression • 918 F Street N.W. #609 • Washington, DC. 20004 • TEL.# (800) 477-6233
Individual Visual Artists Coalition, Inc. • 985 Delaware Avenue, S.E. • Atlanta, Georgia 30316 • TEL.# (404) 627 - 2813
The American Civil Liberties Union • 142 Mitchell Street, Suite 301 • Atlanta, Georgia 30303 • TEL.# (404) 523-5398
Photographic images, transcripts of lectures and interviews, copies of select legal documents, resumes, bibliographies and other materials relative to these incidents of censorship are available upon request from the artist: firstname.lastname@example.org