Something strange is going on down at the state Capitol, where an Oklahoma artist named Narciso Argüelles has a show of his photography in the North Gallery. Two of his pieces were censored, and then he said he was told to keep quiet about it.
The show, called “Human Landscapes,” depicts Chicano people and their experience in the United States, and reminds the viewer that brown faces are part of creation, and issues of race and immigration easily can be forgotten if we don’t remember to value and include one another. “My art is all about inclusion,” Argüelles told me. But, apparently not all of his art can be included for public viewing.
What’s really odd is that we’re not talking about Robert Mapplethorpe here, but a soft-spoken, mild-mannered artist and who can’t understand why two of his pieces were removed from the show, and then the reasons given were suspiciously ambiguous. Argüelles did not seek this column, but gave me permission to tell the story.
One piece was a framed page from a Minuteman training manual, called “I Am Here, But Where Am I?” The artist found the title intriguing, and the paramilitary language about how to patrol the border, called “Overseeing the Sector,” troubling. But, the piece contains no commentary, no political statement, not even a hint as to whether the artist is for or against the Minutemen, or even what position he takes on illegal immigration.
The second piece to be censored was even more benign. It is a photo of a road sign that can be seen while driving in the American Southwest along the border with Mexico. It is a “caution,” people-crossing sign that shows a whole family crossing the road. The family obviously is meant to depict undocumented workers who might be fleeing across the road and could be run over by inattentive drivers.
This photo, of a government-issued sign, could not be displayed in the North Gallery of the state Capitol. Why not? It is neither obscene nor incendiary, nor is it “overtly political.” Again, there is no commentary, no statement urging support for such desperate families, not even an attempt at dark humor, asking, “Why did the illegals cross the road?”
It’s just a photo, a slice of our world, an image that reminds us to pay attention to what we might otherwise miss, and the lessons we might otherwise learn. That’s what art does. That’s why we go to art openings ” to have our eyes opened, and perchance our hearts, too.
Those responsible probably would deny censorship, claiming that curators select art based on flow, best representation of work and space concerns. But, the pieces were unacceptable, Narciso said he was told, because they are about immigration. What? Since when does our government get to tell artists that they cannot deal with controversial issues? And, let’s be honest here, the “offense” has nothing to do with the art itself, but with the guilt-laden, hyper-hypocritical issue that is immigration “reform” in America.
We just passed a get-tough immigration bill that technically makes criminals out of those who just show compassion to illegal immigrants (I refuse to call them aliens), and we have Republican Sooners who proudly recruit for the Minutemen, and want to set up a chapter on the Oklahoma-Texas border.
Perhaps we would rather not look at what we have become, so that we can continue to pretend that we are something we are not. Which is precisely why we need art, and artists like Argüelles. Their work is a mirror in which we sometimes confront our brokenness and alienation. As an Oklahoma taxpayer and patron of the arts, I want to see the whole show, and face the whole truth. Please put the pieces back up.
Meyers is minister of Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City and a professor in the philosophy department at Oklahoma City University. His forthcoming book is “Saving Yeshua: Christianity as Enlightenment, Not Salvation.”
okgnews story: Capitol exhibit censored, says artist