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Part Two

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During the year of 1987, when I lived in Paris, I was introduced to the assistant to the French Minister of Culture, Jean Michel Foray, who proposed that I execute a public artwork after I had personally presented to him documentation of “Les Routes de la Grande Odalisque (The Large Brain).”

This was, for me, the opportunity of my lifetime, when in the name of what was called “Des Grands Travaux et du Bicentenaries” (The Great Works of the Bicentennial), Monsieur Foray asked of me to create a similar artwork that would be situated in a public place in Paris, as soon as the proper site was found. Not long afterward, that wonderful news turned sour, when he informed me that an election had ousted the Socialist government led by President Francois Mitterrand, that the right-wing had taken over and that the artworks commissioned in the name of the Bicentennial of the French Revolution had been canceled. 

Still, there seemed to perhaps be a silver lining when Foray explained that should the Socialist Party again be reinstated in an election two years later, it would then perhaps be possible to execute the proposed commission.

My hope was renewed when the following election did indeed return the Socialists to power. I was back in LA, when I came across an article in the Los Angeles Times about the completion of a public statue of Alfred Dreyfus that was one of the commissioned Des Grands Travaux projects 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. Léotard’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)

Francois Léotard was the right-wing’s Minister of Culture during the brief period that the Socialist government was no longer in power. Sculptor, Louis Mitelberg, who created the Dreyfus Statue, was also a political cartoonist affectionately known as “Tim.” 

After speaking at length with a prominent Parisian lawyer, a young art curator told me in no uncertain terms that if I chose this route, I would be “Banned in France.”

Excited by the news that my own project may still be realized, the next day I wrote a letter directly to Mr. Lang about my dilemma, that my project also had been shelved during the short time that he was no longer the Culture Minister. In fact, the truth behind the suppression of my work went far deeper than the changes of regimes and the revolving chair of the office of the French Culture Ministry. 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 to what was painted directly onto an interior wall of the museum for its current exhibition.

An embarrassment of such magnitude 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, whom I was personally introduced to in Paris. When I wrote a letter directly to the museum’s director, she scoffed, 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 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 told me in no uncertain terms that if I chose this route, I would be “Banned in France.”

As this had already seemed to be a foregone conclusion, back home in LA, 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 legal case that could never be would at least be enacted as an artistic statement. The verdict, nonetheless, was swept away by the nearby ocean waves, the whole matter treated as an insignificant triviality on my native home turf. A visitor to the show who I ran into weeks later said to me, “Did it ever occur to you that nobody cares?”

So went the interest in the fate of an artwork that a little over two years earlier had been the centerpiece of an exhibition deemed by a widely read art journal in the state of California, “an important opportunity to reflect on world affairs.” It left me with reflections on what Europeans so often said to me, that most Americans are woefully ignorant about the rest of the world.

And yet, there was a terrible irony to this, as the former landlord of my downtown LA loft wrote in a scathing denunciation of the LA art scene for the LA Weekly in March of 1988, just a few months before my “Banned in France Exhibition:” 

LA is a cheapskate. It touts itself as the next capital or art but treats its artists like illegal aliens. The pitiful amount of support Los Angeles offers its artists is a disgrace…Some of our most important artists are ready to give up and move to Seattle or Minneapolis or Baltimore or Amsterdam or even New York – someplace where artists are treated like valuable members of the community.

Click here for the entire article, Art in Limbo, March 18 – 24, 1988

What she wrote so devastatingly confirmed my own experience, that it played a major role in motivating me to seek support elsewhere that in the media capital of the planet, the place of my upbringing, was so sorely lacking. What this story and the others I tell on this website describe, is that the “grass is always greener” scenario of Burnham’s fantasies did not take into account that in other places, where artists are presumably treated as part of the community, that they are not always so keen on inviting outsiders to join them. 

If the outright snubbing by the local media of my exhibition by the Venice Beach was not enough of a despairing confirmation of what Burnham discussed in detail, this was nothing compared to what was yet to come of my effort to find such community support in the place of nearly every artist’s dream: Paris, France.

Inexplicably, a response to my letter to Jack Lang was received from his latest assistant, a man named Dominique Bozo, who sent me a brief cover letter along with a copy of a very long letter he had written to Ian Hamilton Finlay and his wife. Bozo’s cover letter to me explained that his 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.

Finlay had been commissioned by the Ministry of Culture to create a major public artwork at the Gardens of Versailles, the setting 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 smeared by the French mass media in conjunction with an evil rumor that had 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 possible 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 requesting that he explain 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 politely asked, did this have to do with me? If it was not obvious from my surname that my family heritage just so happened to be Jewish, 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 write 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 anti-Semitism 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 served in the British army during WWII, coined the episode, “Moral Madness,” which became the title of my first unfinished book. For the next five years, he and I continued corresponding as the malicious attacks were to keep following him in the UK, while the resulting suppression of my work led me down a rabbit hole ending up for sixteen years in, of all places, post-Communist Poland, the saga of another book I am currently writing.

Grasping at straws, I had no recourse left whatsoever, when I learned that Finlay spent thousands of pounds on French lawyers and won in Paris, his reward being one token Franc (equivalent to 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)

Click here for Part Three: Forget the French