Did Somebody Say Gay? Gay Mormon Art Stolen from SLC Exhibit

March 13, 2004 | 32 comments
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SLCC administrator relocating photos at SLCC depicting LDS missionaries hooking up, image: sltrib.comAn annual exhibition of gay pride-related artwork opened at Salt Lake Community College, and artist Don Farmer’s photos of two RM’s hooking up while wearing their missionary tags became the immediate center of attention.

First came shouting matches at the opening, protesters trying to remove the photographs, police being called, and administrators relocating the show from the lobby to a classroom. Then, two days later, the photos turned up missing, stolen.

The SLTrib reporter lazily kicks off her article with, “But is it art?” Unequivocally, yes, it is. Is it good or not? Doesn’t matter now; it’s certainly effective.

The reactions of kneejerk disgust and ignoring of the context and artist’s intention remind me of NY Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s condemnation of Brit-Nigerian artist Chris Ofili’s painting of the Virgin Mary which included elephant dung (a symbol of fertility he has used repeatedly in his work).

This SLC situation sounds like history repeating itself, not as tragedy, but as farce.

Farmer complains that the photos–”selenium toned gelatin prints on museum-quality archival paper [which] they were not easy to make and would be nearly impossible to reprint the same way” are “invaluable.” Let me give you some advice.

First of all, don’t be such a drama queen.

Second, congratulations for getting so much publicity for such a rinkydink little show.

Third, as to the value of your work, 8×10 photos by an artist at the very beginning of his career–with nearly no exhibition or sales history–would probably sell for a couple hundred dollars, a few hundred dollars, at most. Likewise, to have them professionally printed would be less than a couple hundred bucks.

The actual price would also depend on the size of the edition. Are these photos signed and numbered as part of the edition? Are they artist proofs? Or are they just exhibition copies (which would have no commercial/resale value, only materials replacement cost)?

I’m betting that none of these things were decided before the pictures were exhibited. I can’t remember ever seeing a photo in a cafe, library, or school exhibit in Utah with anything ressembling a proper, professional designation that’d map to the price the artist put on his work.

All that said, I am interested in seeing images of the actual work. [hmm, I wonder if it's just a phase...]

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32 Responses to Did Somebody Say Gay? Gay Mormon Art Stolen from SLC Exhibit

  1. ronin on March 14, 2004 at 8:44 am

    Wonder if the photographer in question did it just to provoke, expecially in SLC. In my town of ANn Arbor, people wouldnt give an exhibit like that a second thought, and move on. we’d say, “oh, here is another fake angst-filled artist wanna-be”, and move on. unless, of course it was a great piece of art.

  2. lyle on March 14, 2004 at 10:24 am

    So…why does sex get First Amendment protection? Why does religion, and not sex, get prohibited from schools?

    Perhaps we need a new Constitutional Amendment, re: sex, instead of in support of traditional marriage, to whit:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of sexual relations.

    Then…not only would be not be able to put up the 10 Commandments in a university or courthouse, but we wouldn’t have to spend so much time being “sex obsessed” americans [in the eyes of our oh so righteous euro friends]

  3. Charles on March 14, 2004 at 8:59 pm

    When studying the philosophy of art there were many heated discussions. I tend to side with the folks who believe photography is not necessarily the art. The composition and skill of the photographer is greatly appreciated, but to me art needs to be more individual. Some flaw, something that makes each piece unique. Otherwise it’s just a reprint.
    Maybe we should consider a new category, decoration vs. art. Art can be a decoration, but a decoration cannot be art. Photography tends to be decorative.

  4. Gary Cooper on March 15, 2004 at 4:43 am

    Excuse me for overturning the apple cart, but I think the “artist” got exactly the reaction he wanted and hoped for, and is currently basking in the congratulations of his peers for his “martyrdom”. To me, his public display of this material in SLC was, on his part and that of the SLC Community College, the legal equivalent of “fighting words”.

  5. Randy on March 15, 2004 at 11:58 am

    Gary, I couldn’t agreed with you more, or less. I do think the artist got exactly what he wanted and hoped for. His photographs, however, do not rise to the “legal equivalent of ‘fighting words.’ ” In fact, they don’t even come close. The purpose of the “fighting words” doctrine is not to protect the audience from hearing or seeing something that makes them mad. Rather, the doctrine is designed to protect individuals from thinly-veiled threats (think cross-burning). By threats, I don’t mean threats to a way of thinking — I mean an actual threat of physical harm. In short, the fighting words doctrine applies to speech that constitutes a threat to stomp someone in the audience, not to speech that makes the audience so upset they want to stomp the speaker (or steal his art). In the latter case, the law requires the audience to act like grown-ups. Too bad that didn’t happen here. You may not like the message the artist was trying to convey, but he is fully entitled under the First Amendment make these types of political/religious statements.

  6. lyle on March 15, 2004 at 12:14 pm

    Randy,

    regardless of current SCOTUS precedent…i couldn’t agree with you; nor does the SLC attorney’s office. They think fighting words is re: “Group” protection…not individuals. [or did i get it reversed...lawyers; always complicating everything].

    Nor should art qualify as speech entitled to the same protections.

  7. Randy on March 15, 2004 at 12:33 pm

    lyle,

    I’m not making as much of this group/individual distinction as you seem to assume. The key is that the words must be more than a challenge to an idea or a belief system. “Fighting words” are not words that might cause the audience to pick a fight with the speaker. They are, instead, words that constitute a threat to the audience. No one was actually put in fear for their (see, the “singular they” really does work) physical safety as a result of these photographs. These are not “fighting words.”

    Also, thankfully, there is no art exemption to the First Amendment. Art, particularly art that speaks to political and religious matters, is fully protected by the Constitution, lyle’s wishes notwithstanding.

  8. Gary Cooper on March 15, 2004 at 1:25 pm

    Randy,

    I hear what you are saying, and you are correct with reagrd to how the courts see things nowadays, but I keep thinking in the Joseph Smith/Nauvoo Expositer mode of dealing with “public nuisances”, which was actually the prevailing way the men who sat down at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 would have thought, too. So, you’re “right”, but Lyle and I are of the same mind on this.

  9. Kaimi on March 15, 2004 at 1:40 pm

    Gary,

    You may be right, but we aren’t living in 1787. The men of the Constitutional Convention would have gone home to their slaves, and their non-voting wives. Laws and interpretations have changed greatly, for the better, since those times.

  10. lyle on March 15, 2004 at 1:47 pm

    Kaimi:

    ‘things’ have changed for the better…but let’s be intellectually honest here…they have changed for the worse also.

    not all of the FFs went home to their slaves (cuz some had none) or their wives (one, none were polygamous; two several were widowed/single at the time).

    i’m not saying let’s go back in time; [in fact...the way my Agency Political Doctrine is looking...it will probably enable sinful results of all types (i.e. those were we know, due to testimony/faith, that there are externalities...but which are impossible/currently too hard to prove to those that only accept the religion of science & reason)].

    however, the inability of the “rights” culture to accept communitarian values doesn’t just create paradox and enable wickedness…it denies rights to individuals as well that don’t buy into the “modern, its all better now than in the past” ideology.

  11. Renee on March 15, 2004 at 2:02 pm

    This is one of those things that presents a challenge. I hate it when people purposely do stuff like this to provoke. It’s been done before with crucifixes in jars of urine and whatnot. It’s done with garment burning protests. One one hand, I don’t want to curtail their right to be idiots (IMO) because I want the right to be an idiot myself. :) Sometimes I think to ignore such blatant provocations would be the best response. On the other, it’s my right (perhaps obligation) to protest their methods and proclaim that they are obnoxiously reprehensible. If for no other reason than to make the public aware that not everyone supports this stuff.

    I fee

  12. Gary Cooper on March 15, 2004 at 2:13 pm

    Kaimi,

    I wonder if the leaders of the church in the 1880′s, facing ex post facto laws, bills of attainder, and disinfranchisement thought constitutional law had “changed, and for the better” in their day…I wonder if the children at the Branch Davidian compound, most of whom were crushed to death by falling concrete caused by the tank we see in the famous news coverage caving in a wall, think that everthing has changed for the better, too…How about innocent people having their property expropriated, with no warrent or criminal conviction, thanks to drug forfeiture laws? Hmm…if anything, the elimination of slavery and the granting of women’s suffrage were exceptions to the overall exponential growth of Leviathan, as Satan inspires generation after generation in this country to sell their birthright for a mess of pottage. You’ll have to excuse me if I find the current choice between corporate socialism with a Marxist class hatred tinge (the Democrats) vs. corporate socialism with a boo-rah, boo-rah, wave-the-flag, live by the almighty dollar neo-fascist backdrop not only contemptable, but a sign of just how little we have in common with either a majority of the Framers’ views, or that of the Lord’s. Sorry, but your statement only tells me that, despite Satan’s growing influence, God can still inspire some positive things. Still, the great caravan of the Gospel continues towards Zion, while the great caravan of America’s constitutional republic rolls towards the Great and Spacious Building. Sorry, but I’ve had enough of this meal; check please! I intend to report the health violations I’ve seen at this restaraunt to the proper authority. Oh wait, Isaiah says He’s coming–with the “besom of destruction” in His Hand. I’m waiting patiently, but while I wait I intend to “make straight the paths of the Lord.”

  13. Gary Cooper on March 15, 2004 at 2:18 pm

    Kaimi,

    I somehow didn’t write it in on that last thread, but it should be obvious that the “boo-rah, boo-rah” alternative to the Democrats I referred to was the politics of the current occupant of the White House. As a genuine, old-school conservative, I find myself increasingly as a voice crying in the wilderness, with neither side of the political spectrum (or is it just two versions of the same side?) listening.

  14. Randy on March 15, 2004 at 2:46 pm

    Lyle, are we still talking about art? Are you saying that this exhibit somehow resulted in the denial of your rights, or even the rights of the community generally? Which right exactly? A right not to be offended by art? I am curious as to the rule of law you would put in place protect this supposedly impaired right.

    Gary, seems to me that advocating vigilante justice in a case like this goes a bit too far. I don’t think it does our cause any favors to overreact to art exhibits. I’m with Renee on this one — if you don’t like it, ignore it, or criticize it, but let’s try to resist the urge to steal it.

  15. Gary Cooper on March 15, 2004 at 3:02 pm

    Randy,

    I did not mean to imply that I actually justify stealing someone’s property, as that is against the law, and it is hardly Christ-like. However, I do believe in the ancient Anglo-Saxan common law principle of community rights. If SLC Community College is a state-run institution, I have no difficulty with the State of Utah banning such a presentation (though I know SCOTUS would not agree). If SLCCC is a private institution (can you see I don’t live in Utah?), I see no difficulty with the SLC city council banning the exhibit. In both cases the response would be under the idea of “public nuisance”. The problem is related to Kaimi’s thread, though perhaps not in the way he intended. Our society has degenerated so much that even basic, unspoken assumptions of right and wrong once universally accepted are now matters of debate, not always in a healthy fashion, and in many cases an alien ideology of “anything goes, as long as someone is paying to rent the space” is being forced down our throats undemocratically, rather than being decided by individual communities themselves legislatively.

  16. Randy on March 15, 2004 at 3:07 pm

    Took too long to post, and missed Gary’s . . . *musings* on the current state of politics. I happen to like a good political fight, but I just don’t see this issue (that is, the theft of controversial art) as partisan. I don’t think Democrats, Republicans, or even President Hinckley advocate stealing art we don’t like. I am all in favor of expressing your distaste of someone else’s work (indeed, that is my very point), but I don’t think we can pick and choose which political or religious points of view we will allow and which we will subject to either government regulation or public vigilantes. With all due respect, I do not think that the thieves in this case have “made straight the paths of the Lord.”

  17. Gary Cooper on March 15, 2004 at 3:13 pm

    Randy,

    I agree, see my thread that must have come in at the same time as yours, where I detail a more appropriate response.

  18. Randy on March 15, 2004 at 3:31 pm

    Gary,

    I keep missing your posts until after I have already posted on a prior post. Sorry ’bout that. I’ll try to do better about double checking before posting.

    If you are not advocating stealing or some other form of destruction, then why the reference to the Nauvoo Expositor? I am confused.

    Also, in your mind, are there/should there be any limits to the regulation of art? What are they? Surely it is something more sophisticated than whatever the majority of people happen to think is a nuisance. Your post makes clear that you realize artistic taste of the majority is very likely to be moving, for the foreseeable future, in a direction that you don’t like much. What to do about that? Further, what will you say if and when the wicked majority tries to stomp out your views as hate speech?

    I don’t like much of what finds its way into art exhibits these days, but I am far more willing to accept people’s right to produce it than I am accept the government’s right to regulate and censor it.

  19. Gary Cooper on March 15, 2004 at 4:13 pm

    Randy,

    Your points are valid, and there really aren’t any easy answers, again because our society is disintegrating, making unity increasingly difficult on even basic issues. For the record, the difference between what Joseph Smith did with regard to the Nauvoo Expositer and what the thieves did in SLC is that Joseph obeyed the civic laws that he had sworn to uphold as mayor, so due process was adhered to. One can argue over whether the Nauvoo charter should have granted the executive that much power, but it did nevertheless. Did Joseph deny the Expositor’s owner’s their rights under the U.S. Constitution? That is debateable, given that the 14th Amendment didn’t exist yet. Certainly Governor Carlin, et al. argued this, but rather disingenuosly.

    In any case, there is a difference, I believe, between a community voting to ban a certain type of art exhibit, or their elected representatives acting to do so under color of law, and ruffians simply taking the law into their own hands. Likewise, there is a difference between an art exhibit and actual political and religious speech, though I admit the SCOTUS doesn’t see it that way.

  20. Randy on March 15, 2004 at 5:00 pm

    Gary,

    I am curious . . . . Presume, for a moment, that a local community decides that they would like to ban all pictures of Christ on the cross. They argue that these pictures are offensive and breed anti-semitic sentiment. Leave aside the fact that such action would unquestionably be unconstitutional. Do you stand with the right of the local community to ban such images?

    I don’t think it is enough to say “there are no easy answers.” To me, there is an easy answer: when it comes to this type of political and religious speech, we are all entitled to state our views, despite what the majority thinks.

    I am also a bit puzzled as to why you think there is the difference between art that conveys a political or religious message (as the photographs in this case unquestionably do) and a magazine article that makes the same political or religious statement, but in writing only. This distinction makes no sense to me. The fact that the photographs have been so effective in conveying their message proves that art is in fact speech. Why should this form of speech receive less protection than other forms?

  21. Gary Cooper on March 15, 2004 at 5:43 pm

    Randy,

    Do you mean to tell me that my statements may have logical holes in them? That I might not have thought some of these issues through? How could this be possible? Well, I suppose it could be very possible…I will admit that I need to maybe mull this over some more. (Unless Lyle can come to my assistance…Lyle? Lyle?)The problem seems to be that the issue is clear when we are the majority enforcing our standards, but less clear when we are the minority on the short end of the stick. Seems like James Madison struggled with this issue, too, so maybe I need to go back and read some more.

  22. Randy on March 15, 2004 at 6:59 pm

    I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t difficult issues to struggle with in balancing the rights of the majority versus the minority. There certainly are. I just don’t see this as a hard question when it comes to free speech, at least free political and religious speech. Let people say what they want, and leave it to the marketplace of ideas sort things out.

  23. Gary Cooper on March 15, 2004 at 7:11 pm

    Randy,

    Here’s a point to consider: Would there have been as much of a ruckus over this issue if the display had been in a church, as opposed to a publicly-supported institution of higher learning? I thibk this does impact in a major way. In the case of a church, there is no question that this would be religious speech, and hence protected (although what if the photos showed the men totally nude and engaged in sodomy? Surely there would be some limits, even in a church environment). In the case of a tax payer supported institution, there is the issue of “forcing” tax payers to support this. Again, I don’t if SLCCC is a private school or not. If it is private, then your arguments seem quite strong. What do you think?

  24. Adam Greenwood on March 15, 2004 at 7:31 pm

    SLCC is a public institution.

  25. Randy on March 16, 2004 at 11:02 am

    Gary,

    A few points. First, it would not matter where the exhibit was shown in terms of it being considered “fighting words.” These photos would not be fighting words anywhere. Thus, if you want to regulate this speech, you’ll have to find another basis to do so.

    Second, religious speech is not confined to churches anymore than political speech is confined to the White House. As Mormons, we should understand that better than most–think of missionaries taking the gospel to all the world.

    Third, as to the public/private distinction. The state has no authority to regulate political or religious speech based on the content of that speech; this holds true regardless of whether that speech takes place at a state-sponsored institution of higher learning or a private university. Thus, in this case, the state could not confiscate or ban these photographs merely because they conveyed a message that most local citizens find distasteful. The state can, of course, impose content-neutral time, place, and manner restrictions on speech. This is true even for hard core political speech (i.e., no campaigning near polling places). As a result, SLCC could have chosen not to allow any photographs in their hallways. SLCC could also have chosen to only put up (as colleges often do) posters from European art exhibits. But that is not what the school did. Instead, SLCC created a public forum for people to discuss issues of homosexuality. The state has no right to create such a forum and then squelch points of view expressed on one side of the debate.

    Fourth, obscenity, as you know, is not protected speech. So, if the photographs were obscene (which no one is asserting), they most certainly could have been banned from the hallways of SLCC. Further, even if the photos did not rise to the level of obscenity, but still contained nudity (again, no nudity in the actual pictures in question), the state could impose restrictions on their display. No one is suggesting that SLCC could be required to publically display pornography on campus.

    Finally, I’m not buying the complaint that Utah tax payers have somehow been “forced” to support the artist’s work in this case. From what I know, SLCC did nothing more than allow this particular artist — along with several others — to exhibit his photographs on campus. The state did not commission this art, and there was no expenditure of public funds. The state did not even rent out a space to show the pictures. The pictures were instead hung on campus hallways. SLCC simply created a public forum for the discussion of homosexuality. Public forums are a good thing, and I, frankly, have no sympathy for those who complain about public forums when the views expressed run counter to their own, but love them when their views take center stage.

    At the end of the day, I feel quite certain that this deep-seeded desire by some to remove from the public sphere images and ideas that are out of step with the majority view is far more dangerous and insidious to the existence of a free society than these images and ideas ever could be. The answer to “objectionable” speech is more speech not less speech.

  26. greg.org on March 16, 2004 at 4:55 pm

    Now I see what Greg C. meant back then, when he told me there was a lot of lawyering on this site.

    It seems this incident is being subsumed into a larger discussion that ranges across many T&S posts. And to this newcomer, it’s apparent that there are some well-worn paths to peoples’ favored positions. In my ignorance of these T&S traditions, I may have posted a little too glibly, so belated apologies.

    But looking at the facts of this situation as we know them (and all I know is in the two articles I linked to), it’s precisely the religious content of these artworks–or more precisely, the combination of religious principals and sexual taboo, from the local majority’s perspective –that turned believer viewers into screamers into thieves.

    Artistically, it’s not a particularly sophisticated way to get one’s point across, but it doesn’t seem like Farmer underestimated the sophistication of his audience, either. One of my main motivations for seeing and collecting art is the view it provides me into another person’s experience and way of seeing the world. Oftentimes, this encounter enhances or expands my own view of the world and my understanding of others.

    Frankly, I wouldn’t have posted this incident if the artist had simply staged these photos. But even if I don’t condone what they depict, the fact that the artist and the couple in the photos are gay and RM’s gives them an authenticity or validity as expression. They deserve far greater consideration than they’ve been shown, at least on the ground. Which ain’t even that much.

  27. travis on March 25, 2004 at 9:47 am

    i found a link to two of the pictures, and read what a gay blogger in SLC had to say about the whole thing. i got mad and blogged back. in short, i think the art amounts to ethnic intimidation, much like the actions of the homeless man who urinated in the holy water at a philadelphia cathedral to get back at the priests there. here’s the link to my response:

    http://www.all-encompassingly.com/archives/000294.php

  28. all-encompassingly on March 25, 2004 at 9:50 am

    pissing in our holy water
    nick over at zionide posted samples of a few of the (what he called) “needlessly controversial” gay mormon missionary pictures that are on display in SLC. i found his quick dismissal of the controversy disappointing. in fact, i think it’s…

  29. all-encompassingly on April 1, 2004 at 3:00 am

    pissing in our holy water
    nick over at zionide posted samples of a few of the (what he called) “needlessly controversial” gay mormon missionary pictures that are on display in SLC. i found his quick dismissal of the controversy disappointing. in fact, i think it’s…

  30. all-encompassingly on April 10, 2004 at 2:02 pm

    pissing in our holy water
    nick over at zionide posted samples of a few of the (what he called) “needlessly controversial” gay mormon missionary pictures that are on display in SLC. i found his quick dismissal of the controversy disappointing. in fact, i think it’s…

  31. all-encompassingly on April 16, 2004 at 12:43 pm

    pissing in our holy water
    nick over at zionide posted samples of a few of the (what he called) “needlessly controversial” gay mormon missionary pictures that are on display in SLC. i found his quick dismissal of the controversy disappointing. in fact, i think it’s…

  32. all-encompassingly on June 15, 2004 at 11:25 am

    pissing in our holy water
    nick over at zionide posted samples of a few of the (what he called) “needlessly controversial” gay mormon missionary pictures that are on display in SLC. i found his quick dismissal of the controversy disappointing. in fact, i think it’s…