With the recent wave of protest over sculptor Ryan McCourt’s Hindu-inspired works outside of the Shaw Conference Centre, I have to wonder about the state of art and censorship in this city.
Walking past the Shaw Conference Centre recently, the physical absence of the large Ganesha sculpture seemed detached from the international media frenzy that led up to its removal. While the majority of the headlines focused on the “unapologetic artist” versus the “Hindu protests,” the art in question was after all public art, and the dialogue started by this piece of public art was silenced almost as quickly as it started.
The works that stood along Jasper Avenue for the past year were steel-crafted sculptures depicting the holy figure of Ganesha along with detached formations of the female form. A few weeks ago, Mayor Stephen Mandel ordered their immediate removal after he received a protest letter signed by 700 members from the Hindu community. Now, numerous oversized flower pots clumsily fill the sidewalks while Donald Moor’s multi-coloured “Dream.big” mural casts a peculiarly ironic shadow over the former setting of the offensive works in question.
Instead of investigating the accused works of blasphemy, which the Mayor said he was unaware of until the controversy started, the public works were swiftly and ignorantly removed from public sight.
The immediate result has of course led to the sale and private collection of these pieces (which McCourt’s website has confirmed), but for the general public and arts community, the city has demonstrated that it will bend to appease before it will defend and challenge. What’s more disconcerting is that McCourt’s works were not even provoking.
Most sensational cases of censored art usually revolve around highly social or politically charged works. These works, which demonstrate a preoccupation with form and colour, are hardly worthy of political censorship.
It is usually the artistic statement—that dangerous protest emanating through a form and able to reach the masses—that strikes at the heart of censorship cases. Usually offensive to anyone but the general public, censored art tends to challenge a dominant way of thinking; in Edmonton, art will be censored if it challenges any mode of thinking.
Although the artist declined a formal interview with this column, McCourt did provide links to his own writing on similar subject matters. From his writing and his art, it is evident that McCourt draws his inspiration from the world around him in mostly aesthetic-based qualities. And as aesthetics cannot and should not be separated from their social or political connotations, these works—created as an expression and not a statement—have been banned because of interpretation.
One of the major pleasures of art, especially public art, is its ability to attract multiple interpretations, and it is amazingly agonizing that any single interpretation can now have art banned for all to view.
First published in Vue Weekly, October 3 - 9, 2007