Unveiled at Arts Center
by Judith Weizner
Petra Mahler's mural
on the south wall of the two year old Annenberg Symphony Hall of the South Bronx
Arts Center was unveiled for the sixth time this morning as police struggled to
contain an unruly crowd of screaming demonstrators carrying placards reading "Art
for art's sake" and "Life will imitate art if you let it." The protesters were
members of a local artists' cooperative who had threatened to cover the mural
with graffiti before it could be dedicated.
Five years ago, when excavation
for the South Bronx Arts Center had just begun, Ms. Mahler approached the State
Council on the Arts with the idea that painting a mural on the south wall of Annenberg
Symphony Hall would be the equivalent of hanging an artwork in the living room
of every apartment in the Third World Plaza Public Housing Complex which faces
the hall. The State Council on the Arts enthusiastically agreed to fund Ms. Mahler's
As soon as work on the outside of the hall was finished, Ms.
Mahler began her mural, then titled "Portrait of an Orchestra", which was kept
shrouded from viewers until opening night. When the cover was finally removed,
critics were unanimous in acclaiming it for its verisimilitude and for the intensity
of expression on the players' faces.
However, the next day, in a letter
to the editor of the Times, Nfume Nkume, President of the Third World Plaza Tenants'
Association, pointed out that there were only two black faces in the picture.
(The mural, a photo montage like portrait of the members of the orchestra during
a concert, depicts one hundred white musicians and two blacks.) At a hastily arranged
meeting between Mr. Nkume, William Apaiser, chairman of the board of the South
Bronx Arts Center and Ms. Mahler, the artist explained that her purpose in painting
the mural was to immortalize the musicians who were actually members of the orchestra
when the hall opened and that of the hundred two musicians in the orchestra, only
two really were black. But Mr. Nkume insisted that there ought to have been more
than token representation of blacks who comprise forty percent of the population
of New York City. He pointed out that black children needed role models to encourage
them to take up the study of music.
When Ms. Mahler reiterated her objection
Mr. Nkume threatened to go to court to block display of the mural, citing the
sixth paragraph of the Sensitivity Clause of the Civil Rights Act of 1993. (The
Sensitivity Clause forbids the public display of artwork that might, because of
racial, ethnic, gender or any other considerations resulting from an accident
of birth, offend more than ten percent of the population within a fifteen block
or one and a half mile radius of an artwork.) Mr. Nkume stated that since the
portrait contains only two black faces, and they are in the second violins, the
mural would obviously offend more than ten percent of the people within a fifteen
block radius of the Arts Center, thereby falling within the scope of the Sensitivity
Clause. He suggested that if the orchestra were portrayed as being forty percent
black, with blacks occupying prominent positions, including that of conductor,
the mural might not be objectionable. Mr. Apaiser proposed that Ms. Mahler compromise
by making the features of forty percent of the faces (including those of the concertmaster,
the principal wind players, and the conductor) indistinguishable and painting
them as minorities.
Ms. Mahler was dispatched to her workplace behind
the tarpaulin where she set about obscuring the features of the players and darkening
their complections. No sooner had the paint dried than the orchestra voted to
strike on grounds that forty percent of the players had been denied immortality
because their features and skin color had been altered.
Once more Ms.
Mahler retreated behind the tarpaulin where she remained for a period of several
weeks. This time, before revealing the result of her labor, she called a press
conference at which she spoke simply and eloquently, explaining that since it
was impossible to please all the people all the time, she had sought, and was
confident that she had found, a solution that would satisfy the terms of her grant
without offending anyone. Without further comment, she pulled the cover aside,
revealing an orchestra of cats painted in the widest possible variety of colors
and markings. The crowd let out a gasp of admiration followed by thunderous applause.
As soon as the applause had died down the orchestra manager came forward to announce
an end to the strike.
The next morning, Jamie Katz, attorney for Humans
for the Sensitive Treatment of Animals (HuSTA), notified Ms. Mahler and the board
of the Arts Center that she had filed charges against them for gross insensitivity
in depicting cats as violinists when traditionally violin strings were made of
cat gut. She added that because the Third World Plaza had a known population of
four hundred eighty five cats, with perhaps thousands more within a fifteen block
radius, Ms. Mahler was in violation of the Sensitivity Clause of the Civil Rights
Act of 1993 since being a cat is clearly an accident of the cat's birth. She emphasized
that the statute does not specifically exclude animals. "No cat can rest easy
in proximity to this offensive painting," Ms. Katz said. "It's got to go."
Another meeting was convened, attended by Ms. Mahler, Ms. Katz, Mr. Apaiser
and Jhana Alexandria of the State Council on the Arts, at which Ms. Mahler was
rumored to have called Ms. Katz "a crazed witch's familiar", possibly a reference
to Ms. Katz's sparse, jet black facial hair. Ms. Mahler refused to elaborate on
her remarks, but the next day the tarpaulin was back in place where it remained
for several months. This time, Ms. Mahler did not invite the press for the unveiling,
but instead, lowered the cover with no fanfare late one weekday afternoon. Only
Mr. Apaiser, Ms. Katz and Ms. Alexandria were present and, according to sources
in the State Council on the Arts offices, the mural, now entitled "Opening Night",
showed a montage of orchestra and audience in opening night finery. Forty percent
of the figures were black and, after Ms. Mahler made some minor adjustments in
the clothing worn by audience members, mostly having to do with removing representations
of fur coats and collars, the painting was deemed acceptable and a dedication
scheduled. One day before the dedication, however, Ms. Alexandria noticed that
there were no obviously homosexual figures in the painting and said that this
defect must be remedied if Ms. Mahler were not to have to return her grant money.
To satisfy this requirement, seven percent of the male figures and three percent
of the females would have to be adjusted to appear to be holding hands with partners
of the same sex. At the same time, Ms. Mahler was instructed to make the lines
of people waiting to use the men's and women's bathrooms of equal length.
Working through the night, Ms. Mahler was able to complete the revisions
with just enough time to take a shower and change her clothes before the scheduled
dedication. No sooner had the dedication ceremony begun than Ms. Mahler was served
with papers by Lucien Sacrevache, attorney for the Federation for the Homeless,
once again charging Ms. Mahler under the Sensitivity Clause, due to the gross
insensitivity of portraying rich people in expensive clothes in a setting that
was clearly beyond the reach of most, if not all, of the homeless who would be
forced to confront the offending painting every time they passed the Arts Center.
The ceremony was halted, Mr. Sacrevache and his followers were invited
to spend the night in Annenberg Hall in reparation, and Ms. Mahler was now given
her final opportunity to make good on her proposal.
The tarpaulin, which,
due to Mr. Sacrevache's alacrity, had not been fully removed, covered the wall
once more as neighbors observed Ms. Mahler's comings and goings. After six months
of re working, Ms. Mahler notified Mr. Apaiser, Mr. Nkume, Ms. Katz, Mr. Sacrevache
and Ms. Alexandria that the mural was ready. At a private viewing behind the tarpaulin,
they all agreed that the painting was completely acceptable and today's dedication
The demonstration erupted as soon as the tarpaulin had
been completely removed and it took twenty five minutes for police to subdue the
screaming artists long enough for a multi lingual, multi racial committee of non
denominational clergypersons to read the dedication.
The mural, now
entitled "Benefactors", consists of five panels, each containing a mini portrait
of the subject in a characteristic pose: Mr. Nkume stands before the main entrance
to the Third World Plaza carrying a placard reading "Power to the People"; Ms.
Katz, seated on a bench, is surrounded by stray cats and dogs; Mr. Sacrevache
is removing a subpoena from a trash can; Ms. Alexandria, pen in hand, examines
a painting. Mr. Apaiser, in the center panel, arms outstretched, beams benevolently
into the neighborhood.
In an interview after the dedication, when asked
about her shift away from a musical subject, Ms. Mahler said, "The fault was in
my approach. I was guilty of stereotypical thinking you know arts center, music,
musicians that sort of thing. I simply failed to take into account that when people
look at art what they really want is to see themselves."
are a two more articles for your enjoyment.
Rules Changed • The