Is It Art or Indecent, and Who Should Decide?

Visual Expressions 2010, The Merc gallery, Temecula, Jeff Hebron
Opening night of Visual Expressions 2010 in the Gallery at the Merc. [Credit: Brandy Sebastian via Sissi Hale Studio]
TEMECULA, Calif. — Who should decide what is art and which imagery goes beyond "family-friendly" viewing. So goes the debate in the southeastern California city of Temecula after the removal of a nude portrait from a city gallery.

A woman's portrait by Temecula-based artist Jeff Hebron was pulled from an exhibit at a city-owned building called The Merc. The painting was set to hang in Visual Expressions 2010, a juried art show scheduled to run through March 31. The New York-based National Coalition Against Censorship caught word and sent a letter of criticism to City Manager Shawn Nelson, in part:
"It is not the role of a public official to shield the eyes of the public from work because he subjectively decides it is not 'family-friendly.' As a public gallery, the gallery at The Merc is governed by the free speech clause in the First Amendment, meaning that the selection of art in the gallery should be based on viewpoint-neutral criteria such as creative excellence, cultural significance and intellectual richness. The arbitrary, subjective, and vague determination of what might be 'appropriate' for the venue has led in this case to the impermissible imposition of an individual’s viewpoint on the whole community and is likely to be found in violation of First Amendment principles.

Simple nudity is not sufficient ground for excluding artwork from public exhibition. If it were, a vast amount of great art, including masterpieces like Michelangelo’s 'David', would be off limits."
Exhibit chairwoman Sissi Hale gave the following statement to the press:
"As the curator of Visual Expressions 2010, I take full responsibility for the selection of artwork curated into this show. Although this exhibit was a huge triumph for the arts in Temecula, it has come with controversy over issues of censorship. During the selection of the artwork I felt I was operating within the guidelines of the show's prospectus. I felt I never strayed from the non-explicit/family friendly guidelines and I believed the piece in question fell within those guidelines. I want to make clear that I am NOT the person who pulled the painting. I am the person who supported this piece and curated it in. I support art in all its forms and expressions and as an artist, curator and individual I despise censorship."
Temecula Community Services Director Herman Parker says he'll evaluate the NCAC's letter and decide if anything should be done.

Artist Hebron remarked, “I’ve been painting for 20 years. This is not a hobby for me. I work at this full time. I have never considered myself a controversial artist.”

The full text of the NCAC letter and painting image are posted here
[Update: This post previously contained an inaccurate statement that Sissi Hale was responsible for removing the artwork. It has since been corrected. —Ed.]


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