Last night, a painting hanging in the town library in Trumbull, Connecticut was defaced, while in the same building, the library board was holding a meeting about the display of said painting. I wish I could say I was surprised that this happened, but to be honest, I’m not. I’ve been expecting it. I believe this was the inevitable result of a series of events that broke into public awareness two weeks ago, when the town’s First Selectman ordered the painting removed.
Let’s review the timeline:
- A collection of paintings entitled “The Great Minds Collection,” commissioned by Trumbull residents Richard and Joan Resnick has been on display at the Trumbull Library since the fall of 2014. It had previously been on display at nearby Fairfield University.
- In mid-February, the Bridgeport Archdiocese made it known publicly that they were displeased about one painting in the collection, “Women of Purpose,” because it included in its depiction of influential women both Mother Teresa and Margaret Sanger. The library itself received eight calls of complaint and a religious order in India notified the town that any use of Mother Teresa’s image was a copyright violation.
- In response to the copyright claim, which experts – save for the town attorney – agreed was specious, the First Selectman Timothy M. Herbst ordered the librarian to remove the painting to protect the town. He said he required an indemnification from the Resnicks against any copyright claims that might arise from the painting, which the Resnicks had already provided verbally and were happy to commemorate in writing. This action generated significant press attention throughout the state.
- When the First Selectman then said he required indemnification against any claims that might arise from possible damage to the collection while in the town’s care, publicly chastised the librarian and library board for not having secured one previously, and accused the librarian of ethics violations in her dealings with the Resnicks.
- The Resnicks agreed to sign an indemnification agreement against damage to the collection, but balked when the town reportedly proffered language that could have made them responsible for such instances as one of the paintings falling off the wall and causing damage or injury, as well as requiring that the Resnicks foot the bill for repairing and repainting library walls when the exhibition concluded.
- On Friday, March 6, the town added a rider to its own insurance policy covering the paintings and “Women of Purpose” was rehung at the library.
- Five days later, someone defaced the image of Margaret Sanger.
As quoted in the Trumbull Times, First Selectman Herbst responded to last night’s vandalism by saying, “I think this proves exactly what we have been saying for the last three weeks.”
Here’s what’s faulty with Herbst’s argument: this wasn’t a public issue until he made it one. By demanding the removal of the painting, by sending a barrage of communications to the Resnicks and others and by simultaneously releasing them to the local press, he elevated dispute into controversy, all the while saying he was doing it to protect the town. His tactics likely led to the painting becoming a target, in a way it hadn’t been before.
Why didn’t Mr. Herbst simply ask the Resnicks for indemnification, working through the established channels of their relationship with the library? Why, if the town had such language ready for works that might be displayed in town hall, wasn’t that immediately offered to the Resnicks? Why did Herbst accept the sole legal opinion that encouraged removal of the painting, instead of seeking further guidance from an intellectual property lawyer? Why if the concern was for the safety of the paintings while in the possession of the town did he demand only that the single painting, the one which had been the subject of complaints, be removed, when surely his liability concerns pertained to all of them?
While I don’t deny that some of the responses from the Resnicks and their attorney were part of the escalation of tensions, the fact is this could have all been handled quickly and quietly as part of an administrative process. Instead, by selectively removing the one painting that had received some complaints – an act of censorship, not protection – this was transformed into a culture war: of art, of ideas, of expression and of religion.
In all of the discussion of the painting itself – and I respect the beliefs and opinions of all of those who are distressed by it – I haven’t seen anyone make the argument about the fact that in this work, Mother Teresa and Margaret Sanger are at the opposite ends of the frame. I’m not art critic, but one could validly say that while all contained are influential women, the great nun and the family planning pioneer are literally as far apart as they can get, opposite ends of the spectrum. Might that not reflect their divergent views? It’s one simplistic interpretation, I know, but might it not be a valid one? Does their mere presence in the same image declare that one endorses the tenets of another?
I am impressed that Dr. Resnick has stated that he will not press charges if the vandal is caught, which is a generous statement that shows his desire to return the conversation to one of ideas, not vindictiveness. That said, Mr. Herbst must be held to his statement to the Connecticut Post that, “”We’re going to nail the person who did this and Police Chief (Michael) Lombardo and I are mutually committed to holding the person who did this accountable.” Without that investigation, without someone held responsible, the town sends the message that vandalism is an acceptable form of debate anywhere in the town of Trumbull, let alone inside a town property.
It’s unfortunate and infuriating that we’re seeing the many faces of censorship in Trumbull. It’s also unfortunate that the actions of town officials set it in motion on the pretext of municipal protection, rather than handling what was obviously a potentially charged situation with finesse and with care for the protection of open public discourse and the expression of ideas through art.
Howard Sherman is Director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Drama.
Note: crude or ad hominem attacks in comments will be removed at my discretion. This is not censorship, but my right as the author of this blog to insure that conversation remains civil. Comments will not be removed simply because we disagree.