In defense of art: no sacred cows

“Mexican artist Fabián Cháirez stands next to his painting of Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata, straddling a horse nude, wearing high heels and a pink hat, at the Fine Arts Palace in Mexico City on Dec. 11, 2019. Marco Ugarte/AP”

Recently, Mexican artist Fabian Chairez, displayed his controversial painting of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, at Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City as part of a Zapata exhibition with more than 140 pieces, and people lost their minds over it. Protests erupted in violence outside of the museum and protesters rushed into the museum lobby, threatening to block the entrance until the painting was removed. Descendants of Zapata himself have threatened to sue the artist and the museum for the high crime of depicting Zapata as gay.

At the core of this “controversy” you have two things. One: art. Two: people who dislike said art. That’s it.

Some guy painted an image that some people dislike and now we’re stuck in this circular argument of what constitutes “art” and who gets to decide what’s offensive.  

The people in category two believe that the painting is so wholly offensive to their delicate sensibilities that no one should be allowed to see it and that it should not exist, period. Further, they believe the artist should be punished for even daring to create it. 

I disagree.

Interestingly enough, under the Mexican Constitution, the right to freedom of expression does, in fact, exist but with certain conditions

“…unless it offends good morals, infringes the rights of others, incites to crime, or disturbs the public order,”

So, wording like “good morals” means that the government can and will decide what those are, which means they actually do NOT have freedom of speech. This is dangerous. This is also why I relish being a Chicano in the United States because I treasure my right to offend, especially the government but also uptight people and squares who have tried my whole life to try and tell me that my music, art, hair, tattoos, culture, books and opinions are offensive. 

But then again, I am a free speech absolutist.

I am a Chicano artist, writer and publisher. I am against all forms censorship, regardless of their context. Please keep in mind that nowhere have I said I am against criticism! 

Now, before we get lost in the weeds and before you start to tell me why it’s “wrong” to depict certain subjects and why some things are “off limits,” let me explain a few things. 

The only reason I am defending the artist in question is because the issue boils down to one thing: sacred cows.

As a writer, a publisher and as an artist myself, I do not believe in the concept of sacred cows. I do not believe that there are things that should be “off limits” to the art world. I do not believe the government nor an angry mob should have the authority to dictate what is and what is not art. I am and always have been a huge fan of “offensive” art and the right of artists to offend. 

A lot of people online wax poetic and puff their chests out about supporting “banned books” and or offensive art. I actually walk the walk, which I have learned is RARE. 

If you fundamentally disagree with this point and truly believe that there are certain things which are off limits and if you really believe in sacred cows then you can probably stop reading here. I’m not going to change your mind. But I stand behind my principles and I’m not going to change them just because some find a piece of art in poor taste. 

I’m also not going to threaten you or demean you or endlessly argue with you. I simply disagree with you. 

If, however, you are willing to listen to reason, I think it’s important to establish a few things about this subject.

One: I do not like the painting in question. It’s not my cup of tea. I believe my first reaction to it a few years back when I first saw it was something along the lines of “Eww,” and then I rolled my eyes and moved on. That was it. I didn’t freak out nor did I want to embark on a crusade to spare the delicate feelings of those whom I thought would take offense. It’s art. Not my cup of tea but art nonetheless.  

Two: I have zero interest in the artist’s intent or work. I’m not a fan of his work nor his mission. All of that is irrelevant to me. I am simply defending his right to create art and to do so without fear of violence, censorship or to have his artwork destroyed. 

It really is that simple. 

Now, here is the important part that so many seem to be missing: People have the right to criticize his work!

If they are offended by it, they should have the right to express their disgust. They should have the right to call the art “trash” and declare that it is “not art” and that it should not exist, and blah, blah, blah. Go nuts!

By all means, protest the exhibition, write angry letters, shake your fist at the sky, boycott the museum, tweet about it with that angry zeal that Twitter activists so love to spew everywhere like so much puke, knock yourself out! That’s the great thing about freedom of expression – it works both ways! 

But! And this is where we disagree: What people should not be allowed to do is destroy the work or cause any harm to the artist or any people who choose to view the exhibit. Nor should there be any legal recourse against the artist or the museum simply because some people find it “offensive.” 

No one should ever go to prison or be hanged for painting a picture! 

These are really basic concepts that get trampled under ridiculously emotional arguments. At the end of the day, no one is forcing anyone to go and see this painting. It is not harming anyone by merely existing. 

Let me repeat that for the overly emotional and deeply offended: You are entitled to your opinion and to your criticism. Enjoy! But you are not entitled to harm the artist or to destroy the work. 

Simple, yeah? Ha! I wish! 

I received some choice responses for daring to defend the artist on Instagram. Some of the highlights include: 

  • “That idiot is not an artist.”
  • “…something to this degree deserves all consequence.” 
  • “The fact that you consider that silly drawing art or normal says it all.” 
  • “There are just some things that you don’t touch.”
  • “It is disgraceful.” 
  • “Zapata would have blown your brains out if he were still alive.” 
  • “You’re probably gay too, that’s why you’re speaking against Zapata’s family.”
  • “You’re gay because you like seeing pics of naked men.”
  • “he would’ve put a cap in you for making him feminine.”
  • “I say destroy it and teach him a lesson.” 

I swear, I often wonder if I’m the one who’s insane. And maybe I am. I will say this: it is lonely standing behind a principle for the sake of freedom. So few people do these days.

It is ALWAYS hilarious to me to discover where the line in the sand is for people when it comes to speech/art. Always! Because it seems that for most people, that line is there. I have found solace over the years in the few who understand the principles of art and speech. But, man, they are few and far between!

We’ve been down this road before many times. I defended Mexican American studies in Arizona a few years ago against people who said it was (wait for it) offensive and hate speech. 

I was also against the destruction of LGTB art in San Francisco’s Mission District when artists were threatened and their worked destroyed. Why? Because I believe that art has a right to exist and I do not believe any art should be destroyed just because someone doesn’t like it. Nor do I think any artist should be threatened, intimidated or harmed for their work. 

I was equally against the destruction of Chicano murals in San Jose that were erased due to a change in property ownership. 

But! People get lost in the context when it comes to the freedom of speech and art. But the context is irrelevant! It’s the principle that matters! Why?? Because you don’t want the government or angry mobs to have the authority to dictate what is and what is not art.

In today’s hyper political climate, the right and the left are both hypocrites when it comes to free speech and art, which, again, that’s why the context of “art” is irrelevant. Art is art. No one is forced to experience it.

People love/hate when Donald Trump is depicted in homoerotic poses or as a fat ass or being killed. They also love/hate when Obama is depicted similarly. People will argue these are either free speech or that they are treasonous. It’s frustrating that people only support the principle of free speech when it suits their own taste. 

It’s particularly funny to me to be caught defending this particular piece of art because over the years many from the alphabet religion have accused me of being a homophobe and a transphobe on Twitter, despite my defense of their their freedom of expression. But they don’t like it when I also defend the rights of others to criticize them. Again, they get stuck on context.  

Again, for me, it’s the principle not the context. 

I will support Piss Christ, headless Trump, ape Michelle Obama and Joto Zapata all under the guise of ART. That doesn’t mean I have to like any of it. Those who would censor art are usually those who would burn books. And it’s frightening how comfortable people are with the idea of burning books/painting these days. 

It’s hilarious to me when people advocate for censorship based on the core idea that they are protecting someone else’s delicate sensibilities. As Helen Lovejoy says, WONT SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?? 

At the end of the day folks, It’s. A. Painting! ¡Nada más! Pigment and canvas. An idea.

People need to stop clutching their pearls so tightly and b r e a t h e. If you don’t like it, don’t go and view it. Simple.

This is why I can’t get along with righties or lefties because I’m an absolutist when it comes to art. I supported the right for Piss Christ to exist back in the day and I support the right of “Zaputo” to exist and offend as well. Y que?

I know I will lose more than a a few followers over daring to express these thoughts but at my core, this is who I am and what I believe in. The great thing about free speech? You don’t have to agree with me and are free to tell me to kick rocks! 

But one of these days you’ll realize that art can’t really hurt you and that ideas are meant to be challenged, openly, and that art is subjective. Art, good art anyway, challenges you and your worldview. It is meant to stir emotion.

Only you, however, can give it any power.


1 thought on “In defense of art: no sacred cows

  1. Excellent essay. Destruction of art is destruction of human expression. Deciding what gets expressed is a dangerous slippery slope. The $120,000 banana duct-taped to a wall was hilarious, as was the performance artist who ate the banana. But he shouldn’t have eaten the banana, at least without paying for it. How about the same painting done of George Washington by Fabian Chairez? I’d hate to see the angry mobs.

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