By Carol Tannenhauser
It took ten minutes for civil rights attorney Norman Siegel and Alessandro Olivieri, General Counsel at the NYC Parks Department, to reach an agreement about the now-famous “noose sculpture,” unveiled in Riverside Park South yesterday.
West Side Rag broke the story about the parks department’s rejection of Aaron Bell’s original design for the Model To Monuments public sculpture program, a joint effort by the city and Art Students League. Bell’s design included a figure with a noose in place of a head, with a slash (banned) sign in the middle of the noose. The city, Bell said, forced him to alter the design to eliminate the noose. The New York Times and Post followed up on our story, and the free speech group National Coalition Against Censorship wrote a letter saying it “raises serious first amendment issues.”
“Stand Tall, Stand Loud,” by Aaron Bell, currently appears in its altered form – with an open mouth instead of a noose – but will be restored to Bell’s original design, “probably in time for the Fourth of July,” Siegel said. “Alessandro was terrific. He understood the First Amendment implications of not allowing Aaron to have his original expression. Recognizing there was a problem, without placing blame, we corrected it. So, there is a happy and just result to this artistic-expression story and we’re very pleased.”
“They extended an apology for denying me the opportunity to speak for my art,” Bell reported. “Then, they asked, ‘How long will it take to get it the way you want it?’ I said, ‘Two weeks.’ The piece was designed so the top could be removed, because, in the back of my mind, I knew this was going to happen. I wasn’t going to quit until it did.
“I feel like Muhammad Ali,” he smiled. “They told him to go to war and he said, ‘I’m not going and I’m not changing my position. I’m holding my ground.’ This is a victory not just for me, but for every artist who has ever been subject to censorship.”
“We are happy that we were able to come to agreement with Mr. Bell, who shared with us a vision of his piece that suits the site and conveys its message clearly and powerfully,” wrote parks department spokesman Sam Biederman.
In a response last week to the free-speech concern raised by the National Coalition Against Censorship, Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver wrote that the parks department remains “committed to the free expression of ideas” and had “critiqued Mr. Bell’s original proposal for a lack of visual clarity.”
Siegel stressed the joint effort that brought about this result.
“Community Board 7 should be congratulated for passing a resolution calling for review,” he said. “And West Side Rag should be congratulated, along with the New York Post and The New York Times, because without all that community and journalistic expression, perhaps we couldn’t have turned it around.” Siegel also thanks NYC Park Advocates, run by Geoffrey Croft.
You can see “Stand Tall, Stand Loud” at West 61st street and Riverside Drive.