Free to Read
A new exhibition at Steinbeck Center fights censorship so readers can decide what to read.
Thursday, August 2, 2012
Oakland Artist Woody Johnson admits he was ignorant.
“I was fooled into thinking the U.S. was so free and that banning books was something… dictatorial nations did,” he writes. “Until I saw the list.”
That list inspired the exhibit Banned & Recovered: Artists Intervention, opening at the National Steinbeck Center Aug. 3 during the First Friday Artwalk. The list of banned books is stunning: The Great Gatsby, The Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, Invisible Man, Beloved, Gone with the Wind, The Call of the Wild, The Jungle, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter, The Diary of Anne Frank. Henry Miller is on there, for sure, as are three of Ernest Hemingway’s and two books from John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men.
And that’s only a few that appear on the banned list from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century. According to Envoy Exhibits, which packaged, sold and toured Banned & Recovered, “4,312 books were challenged in the past decade.” The curator, Hanna Regev, a member of the First Amendment Project, says that since the American Library Association started cataloguing cases, there have been 8,000 attempts to ban books. It used to be ideologically motivated.
“Now,” says Regev, “it’s dictated by [a] marketing, capitalistic drive at the expense of the democratic values that are the foundation of this country.”
The attempts to ban books come from school boards, religious groups, citizens, for reasons that span “profanity,” “sexual references” and “troubling ideas about race relations” (for Alice Walker’s The Color Purple), to books that counter religious teachings – or proposed legislation. In Alabama, a proposed law would have banned books that “promote homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle.”
“As you look at why they were banned,” Regev says, “you’ll see some reasons are really absurd.”
Thirty years ago the ALA started Banned Books Week, now celebrated in defiance by libraries, bookstores and schools across the country from Sept. 30-Oct. 6. The Monterey County Free Libraries, for its part, procured a Cal Arts Humanities grant to bring Banned & Recovered to the Steinbeck Center for six weeks.
The exhibition is divided into four parts: Banning Books and the First Amendment at a Crossfire; Race, Gender and Justice; Literary Works on Trial; and Burning Books: The Extreme Ban. It comprises 37 works of art by contemporary artists, each addressing a book or set of books from the list.
They take the shape of “Caged Bird” by Johnson, referencing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. His piece is a wooden box with a diorama inside of a wooden birdhouse, a replica of a songbird perched on it, a tiara above the bird, and blocks of wood with stickers that read “Vote” and “to get all free.” A barbecue grate over it turns those slogans of freedom into feeble jokes and the boxed “home” into a prison.
Banned & Recovered opens with a panel talk with Regev the curator and four artists – Noah Wilson, Enrique Chagoya, Kara Maria and Jose Ramon-Lerma – and a local retired teacher, Jerry S. Smith, followed by a walk-through of the exhibit. But it’s been hanging in the Steinbeck Center’s Gavilan Gallery space for at least a week.
One early patron with a trained eye saw the spirit and design of American assemblage artist and sculptor Joseph Cornell in many of the pieces, and noted the Jose Ramon-Lerma work called “Grapes of Wrath.” It’s a found-object sort of memory box made of aged wood planks, and black-and-white photos and objects from the Depression.
“I remember in the late ’30s the Okies arriving in the Hollister Valley, looking for work,” the artist statement reads. Not only has Ramon-Lerma, 83, been making art for six increasingly higher profile decades and been an important artist in the San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionists, but his uncle was interviewed by Steinbeck for The Grapes of Wrath. The artist will be at the opening.
Photographer Clinton Fein, a South African-turned-American, was part of a political exhibit in Monterey’s Anton Gallery four years ago; here he provides a film which cycles through photos of black youth in South Africa and his own white privileged upbringing, scored by Pink Floyd’s “The Wall II.” Enrique Chagoya was part of the Monterey Museum of Art’s Cultural Collisions exhibit, referencing Andy Warhol’s soup cans, but with a bitter-funny political anger.
This Friday also marks the closing of the Filipino Voices exhibition with the curators giving a talk before the show goes on the road. There’s also the soft opening of an impressive exhibition of the paintings by children’s book author and illustrator Belle Yang and her father Joseph Yang; both will be present during First Friday. It’s a powerful Salinas Friday that celebrates freedom in its most creative forms.
BANNED & RECOVERED: ARTISTS INTERVENTION opens 5-8pm Friday, Aug. 3, with a panel discussion and walk-through at 6:30pm, at National Steinbeck Center, 1 Main St., Salinas. Free. 775-4722, www.steinbeck.org, www.bannedandrecovered.org