Here at Drew, we are accustomed to certain freedoms and tend to take them for granted. We often think that the rest of the world, or at least the rest of the country, shares them. Unfortunately, anyone who has made a recent trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art knows how wrong these assumptions can be.
For the past four years, New York City mayor Rudolph Guiliani and his administration have been committing blatantly illegal acts against the street artists of New York. As part of his ‘quality of life' campaign, Guiliani has been cracking down on the artists, arresting them and confiscating their art. Since 1993, more than 500 artists have been arrested. Thousands of paintings, limited edition prints, photos and sculptures have been confiscated. Some are returned months later; most are destroyed or sold at police auction.
These Nazi-esque scare tactics have prompted the remaining artists to commit themselves entirely to protesting, and The Metropolitan has become the main headquarters for their resistance. In a place that used to boast hundreds of artists, only four or five remain, surrounded by police officers, often more officers than artists. The artists now devote all their resources to the protest. Some paint huge portraits of Guiliani as Hitler, which include such great Guiliani quotes as "Freedom is About Authority," from an interview in Newsday. One Chinese artist has pushed a metaphor with the brutality in his native country - painting tanks on signs that say, "New York is not Tiananmen Square." Another wears a bright yellow sad face on a mask as a form of performance protest. All of the artists are adamant in their commitment against Guiliani, although few are left since many have been arrested too many times and are fed up with the years-long struggle.
To sum up the two sides in brief: The city is citing the General Vendors Law, which requires all vendors to apply for permits in a lottery system. Since 1982, however, this has not applied to book vendors, as printed material is protected as freedom of the press under the First Amendment. In 1996, the artists who had been harassed by the city brought the case to the Supreme Court, which ruled in their favor and said that art is just as communicative as speech or press and thus is also protected. So, no permits needed, right? Not so. The city has ignored the court's ruling, and has recently set up a permit system with only 51 spots in all the city's parks (the front of the Metropolitan is considered part of Central Park.) Not only is this illegal, but there are many hundreds more artists than spaces, the permits are next to impossible to obtain, must be reapplied for every month, and cost money. To top it all off, the city has also been arresting artists while they were creating art, which is in obvious disregard for the law which says that creating art is legal in any public place, including parks. The city claims to be regulating only commercial sales of art, but its actions clearly refute this.
This issue is closely tied to Guiliani's political agendas. According to Robert Lederman, one of the Met protestors and president of A.R.T.I.S.T. (Artists' Response To Illegal State Tactics), Guiliani is only serving the interests of the Business Improvement Districts whose property values decrease with the presence of the artists. Ironically, these values decrease even more with the presence of protestors and the crowds that Lederman attracts by displaying his paintings and preaching, loudly, the artists' cause. Lederman, who says he has been arrested 26 times for being an artist, is also a lead plaintiff in a new, $2 million case that has just been filed against the city.
Backing up Lederman's accusations is the fact that the museum itself has changed its stance on the issue. It originally supported the artists but has recently passed out literature supporting the permit system. This, according to Lederman, is due to pressure from Guiliani and the influence of the bigwigs that run the museum. The museum has said, though, that none of its patrons have ever complained about the street artists or congestion on the sidewalk. This ‘congestion' is one of the main excuses the city is using to attack the artists. In literature that the police officers have been passing out, the city tries to justify its actions by claiming it is preventing the street from becoming a ‘bazaar'. The fact that the street has never been a bazaar in the decades without permits seems to be lost on Guiliani.
The New York Times has been supporting the artists, arguing in a recent editorial that the Met itself should know how many artists its steps can tolerate, and that the city should favor supporting First Amendment rights and the cultural benefits that artists unarguably bring to the city.
Frankly, this policy seems like a strange aberration in Guiliani's usually PR-friendly tenure as mayor. While New York events are not that well-known here away from the city, we certainly never really hear horrible things like this, which is a good reason why this should be publicized more. It would seem that something this potentially damaging and blatantly illegal would be squashed quickly by the mayor's publicity staff. According to the artists, however, Guiliani's continued pressure is due simply to his taking personally his loss of the 1996 case and its subsequent appeal.
A recent turn of events that might seem to refute Guiliani's Hitlerlike tactics is the mayor's recent donation of $65 million to The Museum of Modern Art, as a way to jumpstart a future renovation. However, this is an obvious publicity stunt for Guiliani to show his ‘support for the arts', and, according to Lederman, it goes deeper than that. Not only has that money been surplussed by cutting funding to schools, among other things, but it will actually end up going to MOMA's board of directors, several members of which are strong supporters of the mayor. Coincidence? Like Lederman has said, "The only art that Guiliani supports is the art of real estate development. Guiliani wants people to believe he's improving New York's quality of life, but how does restricting street artist's First Amendment rights enhance life?"
While we as Drew students do not have the New York voting privileges or influences in the city to get Guiliani out of office, we can certainly do our part by publicizing this blatant disregard for First Amendment rights. If the mayor does win a case against the artists, it could set a precedent that could have frightening repercussions, spreading censorship elsewhere in our country. To show your support, visit the artists at the Met, visit the A.R.T.I.S.T. home page (http://www.openair.org/alerts/artist/nyc.html), or talk to Lederman himself at (718) 369-2111.