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June 21, 2013
Guest Opinion: It's ironic to censor feminist art over issues of feminist concerns


(June 21 -- By Maren Conrad, Special to The Bee)

As an artist, there can be nothing more painful than to have one's creative voice silenced. So, you can imagine the heartbreak when I learned that the owners at Vanguard, the nightclub that recently opened across from Capitol Park, had decided to withdraw the art series they had commissioned from me, due to opposition from a local, politically connected lobbyist.

My series, entitled "Politically Vulnerable," was attacked for celebrating 10 wives, girlfriends and lovers of California governors. What a bitter irony that the series of portraits - which my artist's statement explained were intended to "represent the strength of baring one's identity, telling one's history and facing one's vulnerabilities, a strength often denied in the image-crafted world of politics" - was itself denied due to the misunderstanding of someone who refused to read the artist's statement or view the artwork.

More ironic, still, that such a fear-based decision, intended to avoid controversy, originated from an institution called Vanguard, and that the call to censor my feminist art came from Donne Brownsey, a female lobbyist, in the name of feminism. As she wrote in her first email to Vanguard management, she demanded a "21st century celebration of women as ... equally powerful and complex leaders," citing a number of local female politicians she would prefer to see on the walls.

Sometimes art imitates life, and then life turns around and imitates art. I had intended to create a conversation with my work about the "essentially feminine paradox of strength in vulnerability," as I explained in my artist's statement, about the ways in which these women demonstrated their personal power by baring the intimate details of their personal lives - often when the powerful men with whom they were associated wished to silence their stories as dangerous "political vulnerabilities."

To me, this was a celebration of powerful and complex women, though their connection to California politics was equally complex. All of them are symbolic of a more nuanced and more uniquely feminine conception of strength than the typical patriarchal "power politics" of the Capitol. When that all-too-typical political power wielded behind the scenes through high-level connections prevailed upon the owners of Vanguard to silence my celebration of these women, the censorship itself became a catalyst for the very conversation the art was meant to provoke.

The spirited discussions resulting from the efforts to suppress my artwork reflect the vibrant community in Sacramento, which is too often unfairly written off as uncultured, small-minded and bureaucratic. When the story broke, an explosion of comments, emails and Facebook posts spread through the local creative community, inspiring a female lawyer to purchase the series of paintings.

Events like this reflect a sea change taking place in society. In an era of pervasive government power operating under a veil of secrecy, this back-channel political influence was defeated by transparency, social connectivity and community voice empowered by a truly democratic social media. It is exciting to be a part of a generation evolving a new type of social currency, where influence is determined less by financial status or access to the men in the executive suite than by the ability to inspire and connect with people on a daily basis.

Finally, we should transcend the problems of secrecy and censorship through the power of our voices. I hope this conversation will continue to provoke new ideas and broaden our perspectives.

Inspired by Maria Shriver, one of the 10 women featured in "Politically Vulnerable," who conceived the Minerva Awards to honor "remarkable women who are both warriors and peacemakers," I hope this fight for free expression will make space for a more peaceful conversation about controversial issues.

To that end, I have joined with the owners of Vanguard to create a new series of paintings to celebrate Sacramento's contemporary vanguard - men and women leading our local community forward - and I have reached out to Brownsey who demanded the censorship of my original series to participate in a public forum on the themes provoked by my art and the controversy that ensued.

Maren Conrad is a Sacramento artist. Her work will be exhibited at Studio S, 545 Downtown Plaza, with an opening reception from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday.

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