noose sculpture

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.

noose2Aaron 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.”

ART, NEWS, OUTDOORS | 23 comments | permalink
    1. Mark says:

      Good for you! Your sculpture and the message behind it are very bold. Keep the pressure on and don’t let anyone tell you what’s appropriate. Giuliani tried that and it took 9/11 to redeem any of his integrity. RIP Eric Garner

      • Reader says:

        The place of exhibition matters. A museum or art gallery which people enter expecting to be challenged or disturbed is quite different from a public park.

        I find many of the art selections in NYC parks to be of poor quality. This one seems rather literal and uninteresting.

        If someone wanted to protest anti-Semitism by placing a swastika instead of a noose on top of the figure and place it in a public park I’m sure there would be protests, including by me.

      • Reader says:

        Riverside Park is not The Brooklyn Museum, although that piece seemed mainly like a stunt to provoke. But visitors to that gallery knew what to expect and that the artist had a specific intention. I wouldn’t assume that random strollers through Riverside Park are as sophisticated.

        A lot of people would not have seen the slash through the noose — I didn’t — nor would they have understood it.

        We are living in a world in which not that long ago Golf magazine thought it was clever to illustrate a cover story on Tiger Woods with a noose.

    2. Reader says:

      “Aaron Bell, a soft-spoken older black artist…”

      You mean he’s not an Angry Black Man screaming obscenities at the top of his lungs?

      Watch your own racism.

      As a black person, I don’t have a problem with this decision. The possibility of misinterpretation is obvious. This wasn’t the right venue.

      • Reader says:

        In case anyone thinks I’m being “hypersensitive” or over “politically correct,” try Googling “blacks” and “soft-spoken” or “well-spoken” or “articulate.”

        That’s the three ways “good blacks” are invariably described in the media. It’s just another stereotype and reporters are supposed to be reasonably sensitive.

        • Reader says:

          Typo: Should have been “OVERLY ‘politically correct'”.


          • West Sider says:

            Mr. Bell has a very soft voice, in part because of an injury to his vocal cords. That was why we had mentioned it, though we understand your point. WSR

    3. We need protection from the government, not artists! says:

      The Bill of Rights says:

      Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

      I say this artist deserves to be seen and heard. If what he created offends me, I will not look at it!

      Our “protectors” in City government need to read and internalize this. Government is not supposed to control what we are allowed to think and say. It’s not supposed to protect us from things we may or may not find offensive. Our collective intelligence is supposed to do that but, I guess we are lacking in collective intelligence as a nation based on our leading presidential candidates.

      Why is it that 2nd amendment protections are seen as absolute but there is enough flexibility in the 1st amendment to allow government to limit our speech and make it hard to petition to redress our grievances.

    4. Amy Shapiro says:

      Very unfortunate censorship. The original piece is beautiful.

      • Lois says:

        Stunning. I interpret the noose with the slash, which, admittedly, you must look carefully to see, as a mind in which hatred of all kinds has been banned: a pure mind.

    5. Independent says:

      There is no First Amendment right to display one’s art anywhere one wishes to. Riverside Park South is a public space. The program which the sculpture was created for was, according to the article, “city-sponsored”. The commenter “Reader” presented some valid arguments as to why this particular work could legitimately be considered less-than-appropriate for the venue-in-question.

      “Reader” also made reference to an infamous incident involving a work-of-obscenity that was showcased at the Brooklyn Museum during Rudolph Giuliani’s mayoralty. “Reader” fails to mention that the Brooklyn Museum is a public, taxpayer-funded institution. The object-in-question consisted of a painting of the Virgin Mary that was surrounded by pornographic cut-outs of female genitalia and covered in dung. To his great and eternal credit, Mayor Giuliani had the offending piece removed from the Museum. The Mayor was entirely correct in asserting that a City institution had no place in sponsoring and showcasing the desecration of a figure that is absolutely sacred to millions of New Yorkers– forcing them, as taxpayers, to fund the sordid spectacle. The leadership and defiance that Giuliani demonstrated in that incident made it one of his finest hours.

      • Don Price says:

        “Independent” – what a bunch of bull shit! Art should not be censored. Any thinking person should realize that. (ex) Mayor Giuliani was an embarrassment to New Yorkers when he censored the painting at the Brooklyn Museum.
        I doubt if he even took the effort to see it.

    6. Ricky says:

      This brings to mind a walk I took in Riverside Park while attending Columbia in 1969, which turned kind of unnerving when I saw a tree in the woods below 125th St. with a real noose hanging from a limb. What it was doing there haunted me – it was definitely strong enough to be real, & its disturbing quality certainly did not make me think it was some perceptive comment on society, more like an ugly manifestation of what should disappear from society. Whatever one’s opinion of “the function of art” or whether one likes the tendency of some contemporary art to be like abstract political cartoons, it was a really creepy thing to run into in an environment intended to give urban dwellers a little taste of natural beauty.

    7. Ruth Hurd says:

      I am outraged by the Parks Department censorship of Aaron Bell’s statue. His sculpture should be allowed to stand as originally conceived.

    8. Judith M Kass says:

      Have “the city” or “Community board members” ever heard of The American revolution or the Civil War or Martin Luther King or Occupy Wall Street? What are these idiots thinking of? Making New York safe for Donald Trump? Public parks (funded by the citizens tax dollars) are EXACTLY where art that engages us and makes us think should be! I fully support Aaron Bell’s right to make art as he sees it.

    9. Bloomie says:

      No need to encourage lynchings or suicide! That is what nooses are used for.

    10. EricaC says:

      Censorship is stopping him from creating or displaying his art. It is not censorship to say that the city is not going to display it for him. Not all art is good and being provocative does not make it better. Being mindful of the audience is appropriate.

      I certainly do not think this piece should be destroyed or outlawed, and if others see the artistic merit that I do not, it should be displayed in a gallery, or perhaps on private property. But I do not think it belongs in this park. It does not make its purported point sufficiently clear to avoid it becoming a focus for exactly the hateful actions the artist says he is protesting.

      • Jeremy says:

        Agree. There is a difference between curation and censorship. To the extent that the artist wants to be shown in this venue, the curators of the exhibition have every right to manage the pieces that are displayed. Nobody is keeping him from producing the art or displaying it in other venues.

    11. robert says:

      While I’m not a big fan of government censorship. Think about it the other way if the Parks dept had used taxpayer $$$ to put up something in an UWS park with a nosse don’t you think there would be people that would yell that it was “racist” not “art”

      Also for all the UWS sniping about loss of green space etc. Why not just leave a park a park. The picture says a thousand words, Having this or any installation of this size spoils the relaxing view of nature. It becomes visual clutter, against a natural landscape.

      • m.pipik says:

        “Having this or any installation of this size spoils the relaxing view of nature. It becomes visual clutter, against a natural landscape.”

        Which park are you talking about? Where are the natural landscape and view of nature?

        • robert says:

          Well for starters take a look at the picture
          Then if that doesn’t work go foe a walk in CP & RSP.

    12. ann bluestein says:

      Well, welcome to liberal New York

    13. m.pipik says:

      I’m white and my reaction on seeing the noose was “oh no, a noose, doesn’t the artist know how offensive that is?”

      Only after reading the article did I find out that the sculpture was done by an African-American and that the extra bit of rope in the noose is supposed to indicate that there should be no more lynchings. It isn’t obvious.

      If the work were in the park, this sort of information might not be provided and most people are just looking at the art in passing. I thus believe there are plenty of people who might then find it “offensive.”

      The park is just the wrong context for this work. (Judging based on the photos, I do happen to like it)