By William Fisher
Civil libertarians say America’s ‘war on terror’ is eroding the constitutional freedoms of ordinary citizens. For example, the USA Patriot Act, hurriedly passed by Congress without debate in the weeks after the attacks of 9/11, gave the government sweeping new police and surveillance powers they say are necessary to ‘keep the homeland safe’.
But there is an ongoing and equally insidious challenge to civil liberties that has nothing to do with the war on terror.
The current case of a Michigan artist illustrates the rules of engagement in America’s ‘other war’.
In the Macomb County, Michigan suburb of Roseville, North of Detroit, artist Edward Stross was convicted by a six-person jury last month and sentenced to prison for his mural depicting a bare-breasted figure on a building. The artist was ordered to serve 30 days in jail, do two years of probation and pay a fine of $500 for his variation of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Man,” illustrating a half-naked Eve. Stross was also mandated to alter the fresco, which he painted on the outside of his art gallery in 1997. The mural depicted a woman's breast and the word "LOVE," as does the original Michelangelo work.
Stross says he was acting on the basis of a zoning variance granted Stross by city officials some six years ago. But a district court jury decided in January that Stross' version violated that variance.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan successfully filed an emergency motion to keep him out of jail pending an appeal of the sentence.
But officials in this town of about 50,000 seem determined to see Stross jailed. Roseville city attorney John Dolan said, “We don’t believe there is a basis for a stay. He was convicted by a jury of his peers.” Continued Dolan: “There also aren’t any constitutional claims that we think have any likelihood of prevailing in this case.” Dolan added, "Six of his fellow citizens hear the facts ... and return a guilty verdict."
Stross' attorneys had filed a motion to keep the artist free on bond pending the outcome of an appeal of his conviction. Macomb County Circuit Judge Peter Maceroni stopped short of granting the motion, but took the request "under advisement," which keeps Stross free for the moment. Maceroni, the judge who will decide the appeal, could issue a ruling on the bond motion at any time.
After his conviction, Stross covered the breast with black cloth. He explained to reporters that he was in mourning for artists everywhere. “Removing the work is the ultimate punishment. The jail time is nothing compared to removing what I painted. ... They’re trying to paint me out as a criminal.”
Stross, 43, told the Detroit Free Press newspaper: “This is one of the world’s most famous paintings. This is not my work. It is Michelangelo’s, and all I am trying to do is brighten up our community. ... They’re trying to turn my message into something it’s not.”
In a press release, national ACLU Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg commented, “It is disturbing that an artist can be imprisoned for replicating a masterpiece from the Sistine Chapel on the side of his art studio.”
Stross is not alone in attracting the wrath of law enforcement and religious groups. In Pontiac, Michigan, Jef Bourgeau, faced obscenity charges in 2000 for displaying classical art such as Gustave Courbet’s “The Origin of the World.
He is among a number of Michigan artists have spoken out in Stross’ support. “It’s an absurd case...Stross’ is a folk version of Michelangelo. There is more nudity in your average church. Sex has become one of the main focuses since the Christian right has gained influence. There has been an increasing preoccupation by the right wing with what is quite normal in art.”
Michigan voted for democratic contender John Kerry in the 2004 election, but Macomb County, where Roseboro is located, voted for George W. Bush, and approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages.
In Texas, the ACLU filed suit in January against the city of Pilot Point, north of Dallas, and its police department when they demanded that art gallery owner Dwight Miller remove a version of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” on an exterior wall of his gallery.
The Pilot Point police repeatedly threatened to prosecute Miller under a criminal statute that targets those who abuse children by selling or displaying hard-core pornography. In response, Miller covered Eve’s breasts with a banner that read “Crime Scene.”
“It is unconstitutional for government officials to censor a work of art because it might offend a small group of people,” said Texas ACLU Director Will Harrell. “It is also a misuse of resources to have our law enforcement officials act as art critics.”
These cases would be troublesome enough if they were aberrations. Unfortunately, they are part of a growing and seemingly ever-more powerful movement by ultra-conservatives to chip away at the freedom of expression guaranteed to all citizens in the U.S. constitution. Many in this camp are religious groups on the extreme right. They seem unable or unwilling to distinguish between Janet Jackson and Michaelangelo. Or between art and ‘Desperate Housewives’.
How does the right wing feel about this part of the ‘culture wars’? Here are a few comments posted on the “Free Republic” website, which claims to be “the premiere online gathering place for independent, grass-roots conservatism”.
“Regardless of the inspiration, sounds pretty clear that this was just another desire to display sexual appetite in public ("love" = "lust"). We don't need to sexualize our children.”
“Breasts don't belong on public walls. I do think they are fine (tastefully) in a museum.”
“Nakedness leads to questions about what all that is from children, and what's it all about, etc. Which leads to children who don't have very strong parents possibly dabbling in the whole free-sex, anything-goes culture and propagating same. Which tends to propagate a very dysfunctional society as we have become. “
There has always been an ultra-right wing in American politics and culture. And certain fundamentalist and evangelical religious groups have always formed part of its support. What is different now is that, with the help and support of the White House and its allies, these groups are well represented among local office-holders such as city and county commissions, school boards and law enforcement agencies. Their ability to get elected to these offices -- the result of a strategy created a decade ago by Rev. Pat Roberts, then head of the Christian Coalition – is proof that they are also far better organized at the grassroots than the Democrats.
It remains to be seen whether the Democrats can successfully take on the Christian Right, or whether they will have to be co-opted by them in order to win.