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Caught in the Crossfire

Je suis Banned in France

Just prior to Christmas of 2014, out of the blue I received an online message from a woman named Sarah Clayton, who asked me if I had written a book that a friend of hers had published. Scratching my head, I told Ms. Clayton that I had only written two unfinished books, so perhaps she had me confused with someone else with my name. She claimed it was published in 1988 and asked if I had ever heard of someone named Christopher Gustave. The name sounded vaguely familiar but still no bell rang in my head. “Maybe you are the wrong person,” she replied.

“What’s the name of the book?” I asked.

Banned in France – The Judgment of Paris, she wrote.

“Oh, my God! That’s mine!” I exclaimed.

The reason that her inquiry had thrown me off is that it was an experimental art book, which I had completely forgotten about, buried in a remote corner of my brain for reasons likely akin to someone having blacked out being sexually abused as a child. The book consists of a documentation of events concerning the fate of what I believe to this day to be my most ambitious artwork, which resulted, not only in its suppression for decades, but of the book itself. Far from conventionally constructed, the book’s pages are held together with brass screws and bolts, inside of a corrugated cardboard cover. Only 200 copies of Banned in France had been assembled by hand. Stashed away in a storage space I rent was a box containing several copies that I had not touched for over 25 years.

Oddly enough, on the very day that Ms. Clayton found me floating in cyberspace, I was writing a brief summary of what happened in 1987, that sent me on a quarter of a century-long road-less-traveled, that by no means was in my anticipated life plan.

Ms. Clayton then explained that she found the book by accident and that her husband had bought a copy of it for her. She said she had taken on the chore of archiving and publishing reprints of a series of handmade books by Gustave, who had died less than one year earlier.

Events yet to occur trivialized what I had already felt compelled to reveal to over 250 attendees of a beachy Southern California art opening.

The copies were offered for sale at an exhibition by the same name that was held in 1988 at a private space by the boardwalk of the beach in Venice, California. Over 200 people attended the opening reception. Nevertheless, extensive efforts to draw the attention of local media to the show were completely ignored. An art critic for the Los Angeles Times told me that they did not cover exhibitions that did not take place in “official art galleries.” Her lack of journalistic curiosity stunned me, for two years earlier the newspaper published an article that not only focused on the artwork that was the subject of Banned in France, but resulted in presentations of it to Paris’ most influential art galleries, museums and the French Ministry of Culture.

In fact, Banned in France documents the prelude to the unimaginable outcome of what was my intended gesture of love to France, the luminous artwork’s composition being an enormous floor-to-ceiling stained glass composition of a map of the Paris Metro. Events yet to occur trivialized what I had already felt compelled to reveal to over 250 attendees of a beachy Southern California art opening. In hindsight, I pondered, what must I do to make this exhibition newsworthy to the haughty local mainstream media? A wild fantasy entered my head of assembling the huge, delicate, free-standing stained glass artwork, depicting Paris’ subway system, late at night in the middle lane of the 405 freeway. What a statement of protest this might have been, since the 405 is the busiest interstate highway in the nation, in the largest city of the Western Hemisphere that had no subway system. 

New decoration on the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles

While I fought in vain back then to gain any media attention on my home turf, the oddly unanticipated reintroduction of this book into my life 28 years later occurred just days after the January 2015 terrorist attack in Paris on Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly newspaper and a Jewish grocery store. For me personally, a disturbing link between the two was undeniable. For while suppression of art can in no way be equated with the tragedy of hateful murder, as I was to painfully learn in Paris in the late 1980s, the horrific attack on free expression, and on Jews, has historical precedent that remained deeply ingrained in French culture. What my story in Paris revealed is an unbelievable cowardice of the powers-that-be concerning artistic expression that unintendedly offended nationalistic pride. Making this inconceivably worse is the fact that this cultural soap opera was played out in the name of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1989. Whereas the Charlie Hebdo cartoons unabashedly offended Muslim extremists, public artworks assigned to artists of foreign origins for the 1989 celebration were interpreted by many of the French populace, military, journalists and intelligentsia in perversely extreme ways, that transformed them into an embarrassment to the glory of France. 

The Atlantic magazine published an article on January 10, 2015 by Jeffrey Goldberg, which directly made this critically historical link between 2015 and 1789, as fears arose of a mass exodus of Jews from France:

It is not merely the physical safety of France’s Jews that is imperiled by anti-Semitic violence, the country’s prime minister, Manuel Valls, argues, but the very idea of the French Republic itself.

What this exposes in the larger sense is the delicate nature of cross-cultural sensitivities that have historically been, and remain to this day, a battle of civilization.

“The choice was made by the French Revolution in 1789 to recognize Jews as full citizens,” Valls told me. “To understand what the idea of the republic is about, you have to understand the central role played by the emancipation of the Jews. It is a founding principle.”

If 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.”

The bloody attack of a kosher market in Paris did not deter the Prime Minister from recognizing the very fragile, yet vital history of the Jewish population in France, that prior to the tragic incident in 2015 had nothing to do with Islamic terrorists. What this exposes in the larger sense is the delicate nature of cross-cultural sensitivities that have historically been, and remain to this day, a battle of civilization. How this ties into the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution and Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1989 is the untold story that I am revealing here.

Note: “La Grande Odalisque,” (the nude in the background image), is a famous painting by Jean-Auguste Ingre, which was painted in 1814. It is most known for the elongated back of a harem girl, which is said to have too many vertebrae.

Click here for Part One: PRPLHAZ