By Carol Tannenhauser
An artist who created a sculpture for a city-sponsored program in Riverside Park South says the parks department is now forcing him to censor his work.
Aaron Bell, a soft-spoken older black artist, crafted a sculpture called “Stand Tall, Stand Loud” based on a quote by Martin Luther King. The metal figure depicted in the sculpture has a noose in place of a head, and the noose has a diagonal line through it (indicating something that is banned, as depicted at right). In a written statement about the piece, Bell explained that the noose “is the embodiment of all forms of hate found in society. Hatred directed towards LGBT communities, religious communities, racial and ethnic communities. Hatred manifested by corrupt members of police departments and corrupt governments as well as hatred manifested by bullies and egocentric politicians.”
The “banned” symbol in the center of the noose represents “zero tolerance for any and all manifestations of hatred,” he wrote.
But the city would not allow him to place it in Riverside Park, Bell explained to a Community Board committee at a meeting to review the project on Monday night. The parks department had, in effect, censored it. Furthermore, according to Bell, he had not been given an opportunity to explain or defend his concept or art. And, he had fulfilled the assignment as given, which was only to adhere to the theme of “The Public Square.”
Artists from the Art Students League of New York have been making sculptures for Riverside Park South for six years. This year’s “Models to Monuments” (M2M) exhibit is set to open on June 16 at 4 p.m. The program is a partnership between the Art Students League and the NYC Parks Department.
A parks department rep emailed a statement to West Side Rag saying “a departmental panel, including the NYC Parks Commissioner or their representative, reviews proposals. For this specific program with the Art Students League, all of the student artists’ artworks went through a process of peer review, critique, and design evolution based on feedback. Issues of particular concern include safety and durability of the artwork, and its suitability to the site.”
We asked the department which concern was at play in regard to Mr. Bell’s statue — safety, durability or suitability — but received no response.
Bell said he will replace the noose with back-to-back wide-open mouths.
Community board members expressed shock after Bell’s presentation. The community board parks committee moved quickly to pass a resolution, “still in draft form,” said co-chairperson Ken Coughlin, “and even when finished must be voted on by our full board, which will likely ask the relevant decision makers for an explanation at our next meeting of the process by which Mr. Bell was forced to change his work and for a set of guidelines for the future regarding the selection process.”
In a later email, emphasizing that he was speaking only for himself, Coughlin wrote: “It should concern us all when a governmental body requires an artist to alter his work. I would like to know how and why Mr. Bell was apparently forced to change his piece, and I am greatly troubled by his claim that he was not afforded the chance to explain and defend his creative choices. Because a work may include controversial or possibly disturbing content should not be a reason to reject it. One of art’s primary roles is to disturb and to make us think. We all lose when art is sanitized.”
“I feel insulted and violated by the censorship of my art,” Bell said. “I am gathering and compiling my notes…in order to share…the events that led up to the decision of denying the installation of my original design.”