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Caught in the Crossfire

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Je suis Banned in France

Just prior to Christmas of 2014, out of the blue I received a message online from a woman, who asked me if I had written a book that a friend of hers had published. Scratching my head, I told her that I had written two unfinished books but never one that was published, so perhaps she was looking for someone else by the same name. She then said it was published in 1988 and asked if I had ever heard of someone named Christopher Gustave. The name sounded familiar but I 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 me!” I replied.

The reason that I had forgotten about it was that this was not exactly a book that I had written. Rather it was a documentation of events in my life as an artist which resulted in the suppression of not only what to this day I believe to be my greatest artwork, but of the book itself.

Oddly enough, on the very day that Sarah Clayton found me in cyberspace, I was writing a brief summary of what happened so long ago in my life that sent me on a more than two decades long journey-less-traveled that by no means was in my original life plan.

Ms. Clayton then explained that she found the book by accident and that her husband had bought 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.

‘Banned in France’ documents just the prelude of what was to come, events far more shocking than what I had already revealed to the throngs of a beachy southern California art reception.

Held together with brass screws and bolts, two hundred copies of “Banned in France” had been assembled and they were offered for sale at an exhibition held in 1988, inside of a private space at the beach in Venice, California. Over two hundred people attended the opening reception. Nevertheless, extensive efforts made to bring attention to the local media about the show was 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.” The complete lack of 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 just the prelude of what was to come, events far more shocking than what I had already revealed to the throngs of a beachy Southern California art reception. In hindsight, I wondered if to get some serious attention from the media I should have “inadvertently” trapped a puppy dog in the gallery’s basement. Better still, perhaps I should have created a “Carmaggedon” over two decades before it happened, by assembling the enormous delicate free-standing stained glass artwork depicting a map of the Paris Metro in the middle of the night on the 405 freeway.

The odd timing of the reintroduction of this book into my life twenty-eight years later also takes on a disturbingly ironic new dimension following the recent terrorism of a satirical weekly newspaper and a Jewish grocery store in Paris. If suppression of free expression is the reason that millions of protesters marched through the streets of Paris, what other artists who were not born in France and I endured back then were unconscionable acts of suppression by the French government.

It was quite an eye opener to discover that I was not the only artist at that point in time to face the guillotine. One of them was a French sculptor, Louis Mitelberg, who most widely recognized as a political cartoonist, was affectionately known as “Tim.” I met his wife, Zuka, a painter, who is a native of Los Angeles when she visited the city in 1989. My lasting memory of her is in the form of a chilling message she left on my telephone answering machine prior to returning to Paris following an exhibition of her work in L. A.:

“Forget the French,” she said. “You will only hurt yourself.”

My fate was thus to become linked to another artist I had never even previously heard of, when an assistant to the French Minister of Culture proposed to me to execute a public artwork.

If the terrorism of Charlie Hebdo was about an attack on free expression, nothing less can be said of what I endured as an American artist in Paris, as became the fate of a Scottish artist, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Mitelberg and Chinese-American architect, I.M. Pei, who designed the glass pyramid at the Louvre. What was most startling is that this suppression was in the name of the two-hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. A program of commissioning public artworks coinciding with that year’s celebrations entitled, “Des Grands Travaux et du Bicentenaire” (The Great Artworks of the Bicentennial) not only embroiled several artists in political censorship but in Finlay’s case the outcome resulted in devastating character assassination. Most absurdly, I was unknowingly connected to him by the French Ministry of Culture in an inexcusably unconscionable way.

My fate was thus to become linked to another artist I had never even previously heard of, when the Minister’s assistant proposed to me to execute a public artwork after I had personally presented to him documentation of “Les routes de la grande odalisque (The Large Brain).” That same artwork dominated the gallery space of the “Banned in France” exhibition the following year.

A handheld Paris Metro map circa 1980 had reminded me of something other than a metro system. I found its shape to be reminiscent of a schematically diagrammed brain, the points where metro lines crossed symbolic of synaptic junctions. At the time that I became devoted to a year-long creation of this massive leaded glass artwork, a Parisian friend visited me in L.A. and when he saw pieces of it on a table in the process of being constructed he jokingly said:

“Why don’t you change the real names of the map and add new ones, for example, “Big Mac?”

After some contemplation, I decided to take up my friend’s advice by applying new names to the glass with adhesive vinyl lettering, a process that continued over the next two years. However, I did not wish to exploit satirically such obvious silly clichés concerning the imposition of American globalist pop commercialism on the great city of Paris. Instead, the process I embarked on became a mind game of juxtaposing unusual words, unanticipated word associations and definitions about a broad spectrum of both historical and contemporary topics.

Click here for handwritten notes from 1983 mapping out the chosen terminology

Applying new words to the map became an intuitive free association word game as my eyes traveled along any particular line or region of the map, or when changing direction where two lines intersected. Ultimately it became a game of human choice. As an example, should one’s eyes travel upward from the lowest point (Diplomatic Trust), they will arrive at the highest (Enlightenment Forthcoming).

See the entire mapping of the terminology by clicking here

Accompanying the artwork is a glossary of definitions entitled, “Trains of Thought” which includes thematic cross-referenced categorizations and lists of the sources of the names chosen.  Some are names of race horses while others are unusual abbreviations that I found on what had become popular personalized California auto license plates, such as: PRPLHAZ, FACELFT and 99NOSES.

Trains of Thought in exhibition at the USC Atelier, Santa Monica, 1986

Click here for the glossary of terms, “Trains of Thought”

Click here for a cross-referenced categorization of the terms

I had completely miscalculated what sort of reaction I would encounter in Paris, where presiding French Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, stoked nationalistic pride by making a big ruckus over what he termed, ‘American Cultural Imperialism.’

Most of the terms are in English language; however, I not only intentionally played with spellings and definitions but invented a few terms of my own. If, as the French have claimed that the “Je suis Charlie Hebdo” demonstrations transformed Paris into the capital city of the world, way back in the early 1980s, in homage to a great city, I wished to characterize the Paris Metro map as a universal iconographic construct of both the personal and social unconscious. In creating a game of words concerning human choice, Marcel Duchamp’s famous artwork, “The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even, (The Large Glass),” was my primary source of inspiration. While working in a library, Duchamp took notes, whereas I spent time in libraries randomly searching through books in search of far from commonplace terminology, often about the function of the brain.

In so doing, I had completely miscalculated what sort of reaction I would encounter in Paris, where presiding French Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, stoked nationalistic pride by making a big ruckus over what he termed, “American Cultural Imperialism.” Subsequently he attempted to ban the further commercial usage of English language in Paris, which was infiltrating the city in the form of fast food joints serving  “Le hamburger,” the very sort of trite symbol of American-style globalization that my French friend had suggested I satirize.

In fact, I agreed with Lang with respect to the homogenization of humanity being caused to a certain extent due to multinational globalization but the argument is so filled with holes. I would prefer to have a French baguette and French cheese over a Big Mac whether in my country or his. French culture is what most Americans visit France to experience. French art is in every serious museum of modern art that I have ever visited in the United States and our country’s greatest symbol of all of freedom, The Statue of Liberty, was created by a French artist.

Alas, politicians often make scapegoats out of the most vulnerable to appear that they are actually doing something. It is a lot easier to suppress an artist than The Museum of Modern Art.  

One online article, “Here’s Looking at You, USA!” portrays the obvious hypocrisy:

Back in 1982, the incumbent French Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, gave an incendiary speech in which he blasted the United States’ “cultural imperialism,” and advised that other cultures enact protectionist measures against the way the American cultural/consumer juggernaut “grabs consciousness, ways of thinking, ways of living”…but what do the French now celebrate on Saturday and Sunday?–‘le weekend,’ when they eat “le hot dog.” McDonalds, Starbucks, and KFCs are ubiquitous, and American apparel stores dot the Champs Elysses like chocolate sprinkles on a cappuccino. (Click here for the entire article)

Having already rejected my French friend’s suggestion that I intentionally exploit this bastardization of French culture and language in the name of art, there was nothing at all commercial, regardless of which language I chose, for example:

Folie à deux, Nuée ardent, Zavist, Abulia, Obelia, 7AND7IS.

In any case, if the commercial preponderance of English language was seen as offensive to French culture, there seemed to be something else at play that was behind the suppression of works of art in Paris by individuals of foreign origins. In each case, a justification was required as trumped up excuses related to historical embarrassments and sensitivities.

Louis Mitelberg’s tale of being commissioned by the French Ministry of Culture to execute a public statue is a perfect case in point. Mitelberg, a Polish Jew, moved to Paris in 1938 to study architecture. Half of a century later he chose to make a statue of Alfred Dreyfus. Troubles that ensued in placing the statue made it clear that what is known as The Dreyfus Affair of a century earlier had never been conclusively settled. Recent events that have driven Jews out of France again makes clear. 

On June 9, 1988, the Los Angeles Times published a story, “Paris Finally Finds a Place for Dreyfus Statue.” The “Banned in France” exhibition reception was held in Los Angeles exactly three months later, on September 9. The L.A. Times article explains:

The story of Dreyfus is one of the most dramatic in French history. The conservative strait-laced Dreyfus, an innocent victim, suddenly found himself a symbol of hate and injustice in 1894 when the army high command falsely accused and convicted him of passing military secrets to the Germans. The 35-year-old officer, was stripped of his rank and sent to a prison on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. (click here for the entire story)

The Dreyfus Affair, which was perpetuated by the press, divided French society. The fact that Dreyfus was Jewish was at the heart of the controversy.

culturally loaded symbols ascribed to artworks were interpreted in extreme ways which suggested that they were somehow a danger to the glory of France.

As the story goes, the statue was to be erected by the military academy where Dreyfus had been court-martialed around one hundred years earlier but the army refused it.

Further complications that kept the statue in storage for two years became linked to Finlay and myself when I had no idea who were either of these two artists. As in the case of the Charlie Hebdo cartoon, as was interpreted by Muslim extremists, culturally loaded symbols ascribed to artworks were interpreted in extreme ways that suggested that they were somehow a danger to the glory of France.

It was all a political ruse justifying the suppression of public artworks and the scapegoating of respected artists. This followed an election that resulted in what the French call, “Cohabition,” something akin to the current government gridlock in the U.S., whereby the president represents one political party and the Congress the other. Prior to this election, at the time that the 1989 Bicentennial celebrations were being planned, socialist president, François Mitterrand, was presiding over a socialist parliament. It was then that Finlay, Mitelberg and I. M. Pei were commissioned to create major permanent artworks. At that time, Culture Minister Lang’s assistant named, Jean-Michel Foray, proposed to me such a commission as well. Ian Hamilton Finlay’s nightmare oddly became inexorably intertwined with my own, when I sent a letter to Culture Minister, Jack Lang, at the time of the 1988 exhibition at the Venice Beach.

My fate was to become inadvertently immersed in the vile cultural politics of “cohabitation” as Mitterrand’s power became reduced to being but a figurehead of foreign affairs. Simultaneously, Culture Minister Jack Lang lost his position and a new right-wing minister, François Léotard, was appointed while Paris’ right-wing mayor, Jacques Chirac, became the French Prime Minister. As soon as he did, he and Léotard put a halt to the public art projects of “Le grand travaux du Bicentenaire,” which had been chosen by the socialist administration.

Lang’s assistant, Monsieur Foray, informed me that should the socialist party again be reinstated in an election two years later, it would then perhaps be possible to realize his proposed commission.

Hope was thus renewed when the following election did indeed return the socialists to power. Back in Los Angeles I came across the article in the Los Angeles Times about the completion of the Dreyfus Statue and then the month after an article appeared in the New York Times about the return of Jack Lang as Culture Minister. The article published on July 23, 1988, “Creatively Engagé, France’s Jack Lang Plots a Cultural Future,” stated:

Although he has been back in office for a relatively short time, Mr. Lang has begun to take action to reverse some of the initiatives – or what he sees as lack of initiative – of the last two years. One of his first steps was to install in the Tuileries Gardens near the Louvre a statue of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus that he had commissioned in his earlier term and that had been kept in a storehouse during Mr. Létard’s time in office… 

“I wanted to repair an injustice,” M. Lang said. “The right of an artist is to be seen by the people, and Tim was refused this right.” (Click here for the entire article)

It was then that I became inspired to write a letter directly to Mr. Lang about my dilemma. In fact, the truth behind the suppression of my work went far deeper than the changes of regimes and the revolving chair of the French Culture Minister. There had been another unspeakable event resulting from showing my artwork to a woman representing a prominent Paris art museum, who pretended to have the curative authority to decide on exhibitions. While she made no commitment, I was so convinced of her interest in my work that I returned from New York two months later only to discover that the concept I had presented to her was almost identical what was painted directly onto an interior wall of the museum. 

An embarrassment of such magnitude and at such a high position of Paris society was swept under the carpet throughout the Paris cultural milieu. Journalists turned their backs as did one of the top art critics from New York, who I was personally introduced to in Paris. I wrote a letter directly to the museum’s director, who scoffed it off by informing me that the woman to whom I had presented my artwork had recently died. Thus, it had been my last hope that in a roundabout way the commission offered to me by the Ministry of Culture would result in killing two birds with one stone, making it possible to circumvent the ugly and incredibly risky task of resorting to arduous legal proceedings against a major Parisian institution. After speaking at length with a prominent Parisian lawyer, a young art curator said to me directly that if I chose this route, I would be “Banned from France.”

As this had already seemed to be a foregone conclusion, back home in L. A., with nothing left to lose, I chose to make a bold statement at an art exhibition held far away by the Venice Beach, with documentary quotations posted on the gallery walls. I set it up as a court case, the left wall being “The Case,” the center wall “The Trial” and the right wall “The Judgment.” The verdict, nonetheless, was swept away by the waves, the whole matter treated as an insignificant triviality on my native home turf.

As despairing as everything then seemed, it was nothing compared to what was yet to come…

The response I received to my letter to Jack Lang was bizarre beyond comprehension. Lang’s latest assistant, a man named Dominique Bozo, sent me a brief cover letter along with a copy of a very long letter he had written to Ian Hamilton Finlay and his then wife. The return of the socialist government and Lang’s professed intentions of correcting injustices done to artists not only in no way benefitted Finlay either but had done him irreparable harm. The cover letter to me explained that the letter to the Finlays represented France’s official word on the matter. Having never heard of Finlay, my initial reaction was that this must have been erroneously sent to me. However, when I read the entirety of Bozo’s letter to the Finlays, I was completely dumbfounded.

Click here for Dominique Bozo’s letter with an English translation

his name had been slandered by the French mass media in conjunction with an evil rumor which spread throughout the Parisian artistic intelligentsia branding him as a Neo-Nazi.

As it were, Finlay had been commissioned by the Ministry of Culture to create a major public artwork at the Gardens of Versailles, the scene where Mitterrand was to give his keynote inauguration speech commencing the year-long celebration of the Bicentennial of the French Revolution and Declaration of the Rights of Man. Finlay’s artwork consisted of the creation of elaborate outdoor gardens laden with provocative symbolism. Two parallels instantly became clear: that we both played with words and iconographic symbols as elements of visual art and that this was to have been the greatest moment in our lives as artists.

Finlay suffered from agoraphobia and never left his home in Edinburgh, where he lived with his most renowned garden known as “Little Sparta.” The French Ministry voluntarily came to him to offer this tremendous opportunity; however, this meant that Finlay had to realize the enormous project from his home with the assistance of people in Paris whom he never personally met. In his absence, Bozo informed Finlay by virtue of the letter that was also sent to me, that his name had been slandered by the French mass media in conjunction with an evil rumor that spread throughout the Parisian artistic intelligentsia branding him as a Neo-Nazi.  The incredible justification given for this was that he had made use of the letters “SS” in his proposed garden. The Ministry, Bozo claimed, had done all it possibly could to defend Finlay from these assaults on his name. However, he wrote:

I’m absolutely convinced that the commission in such a situation would have led to an intensification of the attacks [against you] which would have gained virulence. The disinformation on which they are based has gone as far as affecting certain personages of high moral and intellectual authority and they risk to infest the whole of the initiatives linked to the 1989 celebration.

In utter shock, I wrote back to Bozo asking him if he could explain to me on what grounds he had chosen to send me this letter as an official position of the Ministry pertaining to my particular case. What, I wanted to know, had this to do with me, aside from the minor detail, were it not obvious from my surname, that my family heritage just so happened to be Jewish and that my ancestors had escaped from the horrors of persecution in Eastern Europe early in the 20th century.

No response came.

I thus pondered what the reaction might have been had I by coincidence chosen “Bozo” as a name for a metro stop of my stained glass map of the Paris underground. It might just as easily have been interpreted depending on cultural reference to the name of Bozo the Clown, who became well known in the U.S. following the advent of television in the early 1960s. This Bozo, as I was to learn later on, was recognized as an authority on the works of Pablo Picasso. For that matter, “SS,” or the “Protection Squadron” of the Nazi Party might just as blandly have been interpreted as “Social Security” in the United States.

in 1943 I would have been accused of being pro-Jewish; or in the McCarthy era of being pro-communist. The mechanism is always the same, the vocabulary changes…

With nowhere left to turn, I decided to risk writing a letter directly to Ian Hamilton Finlay in Edinburgh. Unlike Bozo, he quickly responded with a most unanticipated cathartic letter. In it he wrote:

The fact is, that what has happened to me is unspeakable, and part of the pain resides in that aspect: it is simply impossible to explain to others the things that have happened and the damage done. Those who know me tend to laugh at the accusations made against me; since they are unable to take them seriously (regarding them as absurd to the point of being hilarious) they are (understandably) unable to grasp that other people do take them seriously, with awful consequences for my life and my work. Your sentence, ‘I have already endured damage beyond calculation’ flied straight to my heart.

It is extraordinary, even by French standards, that Bozo sent you the letter which was written to me. I can only assume that you are intended to understand that your commission was cancelled because the non-cancellation would have resulted in controversy which would have affected the celebrations in Paris…

Yes: I have been accused of antisemitism and Nazism. Those who know the absurdity of the accusations usually explain them by saying that the French remain very guilty about their behavior during the War. This seems to me to be far too kind of an explanation. In my understanding the position is absolutely straightforward: the particular accusations are made because it is known that those are the ones which will be most deadly and damaging; in 1943 I would have been accused of being pro-Jewish; or in the McCarthy era of being pro-communist. The mechanism is always the same, the vocabulary changes….

Certainly, after my accepting that commission from the French government, my life can never be the same again.”

Click here for the scanned first page of Finlay’s original letter.

Finlay, who had been in the British army during WWII, coined the episode, “Moral Madness.” which became the title of my unfinished book. For the next five years, Finlay and I continued corresponding as the malicious attacks were to follow him in the UK, while I ended up living in Barcelona, trying to forget the French.

Grasping at straws, I saw no recourse left whatsoever when I learned that Finlay spent thousands of pounds on French lawyers and won in Paris, his reward one token franc (back then the equivalent of a fraction of one Euro) while the damages continued to haunt his life.

The only detailed accounting of the Finlay Affair that I have found online was written in 1992 when the new European Union was born:

1992 approaches with the promise – and threat – of “European integration”. The emphasis is on economic readiness. But are we prepared for deeper adjustments? In terms of human rights, for example, will the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” be replaced by “prove your innocence”? (Click here for the entire article)

Whereas Mitelberg’s Dreyfus Statue was finally placed but not where originally planned, I. M. Pei’s glass pyramid at The Louvre would have never been realized had President Mitterrand not waved his monarchial wand shortly after the end of cohabitation. From the September 1989 edition of Vanity Fair magazine:

Although the Louvre seemed initially like yet another of the prestige plums he has been so adept at pulling out through the years, it turned into a nightmare of undreamed-of-proportions. The French right wing waged a nasty campaign to block the socialist president’s scheme to alter this central symbol of French culture [The Louvre], and I. M. Pei got caught in the cross fire. Friends and colleagues of the architect concur that this was the worst experience in Pei’s professional life…Mitterrand’s amazing political comeback in the 1988 election, finally turned the tide in the Battle for the Pyramid.

Finlay, who died in 2006, was surely rolling in his grave two years later, when New York artist, Jeff Koons, was given a retrospective exhibition at the Versailles Gardens two decades after Finlay’s Versailles garden project for the French Bicentennial had been censored. As for Jack Lang’s assault on “American Cultural Imperialism,” no living artist’s work better reflects the vacuous pop culture influence that Koons’ art has transformed into sculptural iconography in such forms as chrome plated bunny rabbit and doggie balloons. More on this can be found on the page, “Trapped in a Bunny Rabbit Balloon Cul-de-Sac – Why I Abandoned the Western Art World.

At that point the stranger than fiction saga continued when it was shipped to Barcelona by a cultural foundation that planned to exhibit my artwork coinciding with the 1992 Olympics.

As for “Les routes de La Grande Odalisque (The Large Brain),” the only recognition ever received in Paris was in the form of photographs of the artwork which were published in 1988, in a book by the City of Paris, “MÉTROPOLITAIN – L’autre dimension de la ville (The Other Dimension of the City).” The photos were included in a section of the book documenting a coinciding exhibition held that year concerning the history of the Paris Metro that was sponsored by The Paris Historical Library. However, no request came to exhibit the actual artwork in Paris.

At that point, the stranger than fiction saga continued when it was shipped to Barcelona by a cultural foundation that planned to exhibit my artwork coinciding with the 1992 Olympics. As I awaited in Barcelona for its arrival, the glasswork was to be expertly packed by a company in Los Angeles, which shipped antiques abroad, when the owner suddenly died of a heart attack. Unbeknownst to me, his brother sent it by sea without proper import papers or the careful packing of the delicate glass artwork I had paid for, only to be delivered to the wrong address of a receiving shipping company in Barcelona. For over one month, it was lost at sea and arrived with extensive damages, nor did the insurance I had paid for cover the repair because the deceased owner’s brother had falsely described the contents as “theatrical costumes.”

I took these photos as Customs officials inspected the artwork:

Arrival in Barcelona and Customs Inspection, 1992

As if the new European Union had also become the new Fortress Europe, the next month entailed a bureaucratic war with Customs officials before I was able to retrieve my artwork. Then the director of the foundation who had paid to ship the monumental glass artwork to Barcelona informed me that severe budget cuts caused by overspending for the 1992 Olympics forced him to cancel the exhibition. Eventually, I repaired the artwork and exhibited it in a private local art gallery along with the flimsy wooden crates that it was shipped in overseas and with the documentary photos above of its inspection upon arrival in Barcelona. The last time it was seen was in 2004, in another private gallery of Catalan architect, Antoni Poch

Speaking at a reception at the art gallery of Catalan architect, Toni Poch, November 2014

During those years, I had been developing my artistic skills with the amazing new tools of high technology and then entered an ever greater saga in Poland upon restoring a medieval tower, which is the main theme of my story on this site:

From the Red Star to the Golden Arches

During all of this time, the glassworks, “Les routes de la Grande Odalisque (The Large Brain)” and “The Routes of the Grand Illusion (Shooting Star Triptik)” have remained in storage, in Barcelona.