Deitch did the right thing in a crappy situation

I’m about to get my virtual ass kicked with this post. This might get more negative comments than anything I’ve ever written before. I know that. Any yet, here I am.

On Thursday, word hit the internet that Blu had painted a mural on The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in LA but that it had been whitewashed. On Saturday, Vandalog was the first site to publish any official comments from MOCA. And late on Monday, The LA Times has finally published some substantive comments from museum director Jeffrey Deitch about the whole series of events.

Here’s a selection from the article:

Reached by phone while traveling, MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch confirmed that he made the decision because the mural was “insensitive” to the community.

“This is 100% about my effort to be a good, responsible, respectful neighbor in this historic community,” Deitch said. “Out of respect for someone who is suffering from lung cancer, you don’t sit in front of them and start chain smoking.

“Look at my gallery website — I have supported protest art more than just about any other mainstream gallery in the country,” he added. “But as a steward of a public institution, I have to balance a different set of priorities — standing up for artists and also considering the sensitivities of the community.”

He rejects the talk of censorship. “This doesn’t compare to David Wojnarowicz. This shouldn’t be blown up into something larger than it is,” he says, describing a curator’s prerogative to pick and choose what goes into a show. “Every aspect of the show involves a very considered discussion.”

The unfortunate thing, he acknowledges, was the timing, as the artist began the mural while Deitch was out of town earlier this month for the art fair in Miami. “Blu was supposed to fly out the second-to-last week in November, so we could have conversations about it in advance,” Deitch said. “But he said he had to change his flights, so he ended up working in isolation without any input.”

When he returned from Miami and saw the mural, then more than halfway completed, Deitch said he made the decision to remove it very quickly, unprompted by complaints. “There were zero complaints, because I took care of it right away.” He asked Blu to finish the work so it could be documented as part of the exhibition and appear in the accompanying catalog.

I’ve got to stand by Deitch 100% on this. Besides the very legitimate reasons he mentions for removing the mural, his appointment to MOCA was a very controversial one. We don’t live in a perfect world, and this was a pragmatic move which takes into consideration the larger concerns of MOCA and the LA community. Yes, this whole thing was a poorly managed series of unfortunate events resulting in a great artist’s work being destroyed (after, what I assume was extensive documentation which is how the vast majority of street art and probably art in general is viewed these days), but Deitch made the right move for the wider museum. Things shouldn’t have gotten out of hand, and they did, but Deitch has acknowledged that. Look at the situation from Deitch’s perspective when he showed up in LA to a half-finished mural that he knew would not work.

Deitch made a curatorial, respectful (of the LA community) and politically pragmatic decision to remove a work from an exhibition that he had not approved for inclusion in the show. If he had seen a sketch beforehand (as he should have), let the wall get painted and then removed it, this would be a very different discussion. Although some have suggested that this signals disaster ahead for his upcoming street art exhibition in April, I am not so sure. Sebastian at Unurth and I have a friendly bet going based on the average of reviews of MOCA’s street art show in the LA Times, Unurth and Vandalog: If the reviews are positive, he buys drinks next time we see each other and if the reviews are negative, I have to buy the drinks. So we’ll see how that turns out in a couple of months.

Photo by vmiramontes

  • Nothing but love to BLU, Jeffrey Deitch, JetSet, MoCA, and anyone else on this: glad they saw the piece through to its completion; it’ll be seen long after the buff dries.

  • Amazingly, you somehow think that a museum director is acting in the greater good of the museum by censoring art? REALLY? And despite your fantasies, Deitch was not as controversial pick as you romanticize him to be, but that’s a whole other argument.

    But let’s kick it back a few years. Could you imagine if the Brooklyn Museum held that same sentiment during the “Sensation” exhibit. Sure, they could have banned Chris Ofili’s art and not offended the Catholic zealots who were gathered outside, but how would this have been better for the Brooklyn Museum? That’s a rhetorical question. It wouldn’t.

    It’s kind of sad when a site that calls itself Vandalog is more committed to supporting establishment museum art than the work of the artists busting their ass and doing controversial stuff. Not to mention, these same artists being the sole reason why you even have a chip in the game in the first place.

  • here’s why i’m so against this decision:
    a/ obviously, the history of street art is covered in strong political statements. To deem an anti-war message as too strong a political statement for a street art show is amazing.
    b/ Deitch didn’t even wait to see if anyone was offended by it. Preemptively withdrawing something for the mere potential it may offend… that’s really timid. I also think it dismisses the ability of the LA public to think critically.

    I’m fairly sure you’re going to win this bet, because the tie-breaker (LA Times, along with other mainstream media) is sure to gush over the show, because ‘isn’t it so edgy and cool’. But to me, a street art show that’s compromised its integrity by removing art that’s ‘insensitive to the neighbors’ is not a worthy representative of the street art scene. For every piece in the show, I’m going to wonder what the artists really wanted to do, but weren’t permitted.

  • … and c/!
    check out this photo:

    the amount of work that Blu put in to that wall is amazing; to decide to buff it within 24 hours is really disrespectful to such a great artist.

  • In Italy we use an expression to define people like Jeffrey Deitch – “furbetto del quartierino”.
    JD uses BLU to attract attention, to create an overtalking about his new Street Art show.

  • Joe

    I’m curious to know if anyone had seen the sketch before Blu had started painting, if so, why the fuck did they give it the go ahead, if not, then why not?

  • Ash

    I actually agree with you. I was uncomfortable with it’s abrupt removal, having assumed that MOCA commissioned this artwork attempting to look ~current~ and ~daring,~ but were refusing to stand by it when push came to shove. Knowing that it had no prior approval makes it’s removal, although unfortunate for Blu and those who won’t get out to see the exhibit, a lot more logical and even understandable. I don’t LIKE it, but I AGREE with it.

  • Will

    Would you support libraries destroying books that might offend someone?

  • Ash

    To add on to my original comment..

    Yes, art is meant to challenge and even be provocative, and yes, it’s meant to make you think and make you FEEL — and ideally, we’d live in a place where people could differentiate the opinion of an artist from the opinion of those exhibiting the art, or even a place where people could understand that even if they disagree with a piece of artwork, it has merits of it’s own.

    However, this is a country where people are so desperate to justify their rampant indignation, they’ll throw complaints at anything that seems marginally subversive or simply insulting. This is particularly true when it’s something referencing war; in a country full of misguided, half-hearted, American-flag-print-bikini patriotism, that piece was going to cause problems and it was going to make people nervous. As a BUSINESS (which I will classify MOCA due to their requiring memberships, ticket sales and likely donations to continue operation,) I can’t blame them for wanting to step away from that potential controversy, one that they’d apparently never agreed to be a part of in the first place, particularly given their location.

    It’s unfortunate and no, it probably wouldn’t have happened if it’d been mock Warhols or a recreation of the Sistine chapel. However, a business’ primary objective is always going to be their bottom line. Including controversial artwork inside the museum, amongst hundreds if not thousands of other pieces, isn’t nearly as big of a risk as covering your outside wall with the same piece. Unfortunately, given the museum’s location, they would be alienating a large portion of their potential audience simply out of the aforementioned rampant indignation — and that’s a risk that’s difficult to take.

  • kubs

    Try to look at it from another angle. Now everybody is talking about BLU and MOCA. No matter what people say, no matter the actions and the reasons, people talk. And that what matters. Now everyone knows about who BLU is and what MOCA is and what exibition was the muraal part of. Everyone is happy, don’t you think? Free ad campaign;)


  • since when do we censor art because it may offend someone?

  • Dave the Chimp

    massive publicity stunt

    which, after all, is what street art has become about in the last few years, so it should come as no surprise.

    you posted a piece a few days ago about art deemed offensive being removed from an exhibition, and now you’re supporting the same actions.

    you’re already known as someone who contradicts themselves virtually in the same sentence, and this strengthens the case for everyone that doesn’t like this blog.

    standing next to Deitch makes it easier to cup his balls.

    the only people this painting would really offended are those in government that put little value in the lives of the boys they send off to die so you can all drive your cars to the store five minutes walk away.

    which I’m sure is the point in the work. something which could easily be explained to any members of the community that complained, by a museum that believes in free speech and supports the artists it works with.

    it isn’t anti the people, it’s FOR the people, for the regular guy who has to do a horrible, frightening job to pay the bills, while being told he is protecting his fellow countrymen when all he is protecting is the bank balances of those in power, and a fragile system built on greed, sloth, and probably many of the other seven deadly sins that a so-called Christian country constantly ignore while using the same faith to kill, for example, doctors that perform abortion.

    I don’t think this was a good painting by Blu, but the more I think about it, the more it had to say to the people of America, and I wished it had stayed so y’all could have thought about it as much as I have.

  • Em

    Well, even though I basically agreed with the decision in this one case (I can’t think of another example where I agreed), this is no doubt a slippery slope.

    Does it make sense for it to have been left up for a time in order to safeguard against self-deception? (Like all those Talmudic laws which exist to ‘protect’ folks from getting anywhere to breaking the laws in the Torah.)

    On the other hand, this isn’t about anybody’s ideology about war, it’s about not hurting folks who actually were already victims of it. So maybe, true to street art, if you don’t like it then kill it, and someone did.

  • NoLionsInEngland

    If through this mural Blu intended articulating a political position, using this public canvas to make a statement about the moral illegitimacy of war based on North American economic interests, then he should have stopped painting as soon as Deitch asked him to finish. He didn’t stop, he finished it so it could be documented and be included in the catalogue. This smacks of monstrous mutual vanity sucking and ego stroking. No pride.

  • alison

    and deitch passes the blame to blu as he missed his flight?
    surely there must have been discussions in advance. i personally find this incredibly disrespectful to the artist.
    unless it is a publicity stunt, surely the topic of subject matter for the mural must have been raised.
    if deitch never saw a sketch who let the mural go ahead? as the director surely he must approve all major works. or the exhibitions curator? how about a statement from them…

  • RJ

    The difference is that the Smithsonian and the curators of that show decided to include that video (in fact, lots of thought was put into that piece because it was an edited video of 4 minutes instead of the original length which I believe was 30) and nobody who had chosen to go inside and actually see that show in person had been offended enough to complain. At MOCA, what was removed was a work of public art by a street artist (note: not street art) which was not meant to be included in the show (the curators expected to include something from Blu, but they never approved that specific piece, which was a massive mistake in planning on their part). Essentially, what MOCA’s poor planning resulted in is not dissimilar to a curator receiving the wrong painting for his show somehow, hanging that painting on a wall, realizing it doesn’t work with the show for whatever reason and then deciding not to show it. Unfortunately the whole thing here played out semi-publicly and resulted in the destruction of artwork.

    A note on the topic of public art versus street art:
    Look into what Steve Powers has to say about his Love Letters project and how he consulted with the community on those murals. That’s public art and that’s how public art is done. Blu’s mural was done for a street art show, but it is public art in a “street art style” if you will. Similar to how graffiti done on canvas isn’t graffiti – it’s graffiti style art.

    Oh but Blu deciding not to return does complicate things for me a bit –

  • RJ, there’s an enormous difference between “public art” commissions and sanctioned (legal walls) Street Art, and in no way does being “sanctioned” by a curator, turn Street Art into “Public Art”. Public Art is a long drawn out bureaucratic process that usually involves “open” competitions, public money, council approval including negotiating numerous disparate departments such as arts, highway, finance etc. Even when it’s proposed by a galleriest as opposed to say a public commission, it’s still an incredibly lengthy and costly administratively heavy process. So much so, that in some cases (think Christo), the process becomes the work. 99% of street artists I know would not and from experience, could not, work on public art commissions. You’re looking at 2-4 years of administration for even minor works, not including the usual media scrum to tear the work apart and create as much indignation as possible from local taxpayers. Museums and Institutional curators are well aware of this..they simply see “Street Art” as a short cut to creating the same monumental works for institutions, on the cheap. It was the same at the Tate and will be same at the next show. There’s an inherent snobbery here and this decision on the Blu wall was a massive blunder. Can you imagine this happening had it been through a “public art” process, had it been Christo ? which curator or director on the planet would have had the balls to destroy that. Certainly not Deitch. Maybe placing a dealer/businessman at the head of an arts institution was a mistake after all. My biggest worry recently has been how on earth can independent events such as Nuart and Fame for example, compete with the likes of MOCA’s and TATE’s resources..what can we offer against such vast institutions wealth and influence. Happily, this event has answered that question. I imagine Deitch has learned a valuable lesson, and let’s face it, his concerns were not for his “neighbours”, who actually died fighting for fundamental rights such as “freedom of expression” , but fear of his boards reaction. Curation through fear. That he now has to consider curating actual artwork, as opposed to “curating” names, is probably the best thing that can come of this.

  • This all is just so incredibly ridiculous.

    Jeffrey Deitch just didn´t know who he has invited and that´s more than poor for a “curator”, everybody that has seen more then 3 walls by blu knows that he is one of the most controversial artist in the scene, don´t invite him if you can´t handle him.

    The next incredible thing is the fact that vandalog defends cencorship, but maybe this is not incredible but how vandalog just is, and we have to acknowledge that.

    @ Kubs: if you have 8.391.420 clicks on youtube someone might know you, so maybe these MOCA guys need more PR than Blu does.

  • “a curator receiving the wrong painting for his show somehow”


  • RJ

    Sorry Sweza let me clarify that. In my hypothetical example which hopefully never actually happens, a curator says “I need a Banksy print for my show of artists referencing Warhol’s portraiture.” She’s thinking a Banksy Kate Moss print. Somewhere along the way, words get confused or shippers mess up or the ambiguity in her instructions confuses things. Instead, a Banksy Tesco Can print arrives. It’s a mistake. D’oh. What does the curator do? I’m not saying this is a perfect analogy because it isn’t, but it is an analogy for some of what happened here.

  • Tom

    My initial reaction was that white washing the painting was a chickenshit move. However, after reading your post I can appreciate the value of not disrespecting the very real sacrifice of your neighbors in such an “in your face” manner.

  • Will

    Sorry, RJ. Your Deitch defense is weak. You’re defending blatant censorship and terrible curating. If you’re trying to destroy any shred of credibility as an art blogger, it’s working.

  • Matteo

    Here in Bologna Blu is consider the god of walls, and I personally consider him one of the best international street artist ever. Everyone knows that behind his works there’s always a thin defiance that hides a great truth..and we love him also for this reason, because through his works he’s able to show and reveal how this society sucks!!Thank you RJ..

  • matt

    Oh dear, I think your covers blown Vandalog.

  • Shef Rogers

    Let me tell you, mate: if you came up with this skiting shite in any NZ street-art crew, you really would get your teeth kicked in.
    You talk like old ladies with your “curatorial responsibility.” What an effing joke!
    Do us a favor and take the “vandal” out of your blogname. Call it “high tea with granny” or something more honest.
    And by the way: yer precious “vets” are a bunch of thugs who invaded other people’s countries. Just like ours were. Only difference is that we laugh at’em, piss on their monuments, hate the sight of a uniform–and you still tiptoe around anything about your bloody army.

  • not from around

    hahaha USA hahahahaha hahahahahaha


    Our take at MELROSEandFAIRFAX is that it is the duty of street art to raise issues that make people uncomfortable.

    As someone said earlier, would you support a library that burns books?

    And to be a good neighbor, should you burn the books your neighbor doesn’t like?

    Blu’s images present a commentary that needs to be considered, not buffed and swept back under the carpet.

  • Lucio Capitani

    why disrespectful for veterans? don’t they deserve to know what they survived? the motives their lost companions died for?
    can truth be disrespectful? can censorship be called curatorial? can art be politically pragmatic?

  • Mastrobardo

    omg. and in italy we are worried about government censorship. A Country of Freedom … I Dont think things went as Deitch states … too strange , no? And why art must be respectfull of the community? Isn’t this a nonsense ? Thinking so , you are demonstrating your country (and thought) decline ….