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Amateur painter's Anti-Bush painting in cafeteria exhibition enrages Republicans

But California Attorney General defends freedom of speech

A Pop art-style painting that depicts a map of the United States getting flushed down a toilet has sparked controversy in Sacramento. The work, entitled “T’anks Mr Bush” by Berkeley attorney and amateur painter Stephen Pearcy, is part of an exhibition on show in the California State Department of Justice’s cafeteria. “A creative merger: lawyers and artists” consists of work produced by those in the legal profession, or art on a legal or political theme.

Republican critics, street protesters, conservative bloggers and the California Republican Party are calling on Attorney General Bill Lockyer to remove the offending work from a “government, taxpayer-supported office”.

In a statement accompanying the opening of the exhibition, Mr Lockyer said it was an honour to co-host the show, adding that creative expression “stimulates freedom of thought” and appreciation for diversity.

A protest against the exhibition on 28 July was organised by the conservative group Move Forward America, which in an article on its website, dated 11 August, said that the rally was “extremely successful” and that “hundreds of people” had attended. According to local news reports, however, only “dozens” of demonstrators turned out. As well as protesting, they came to “celebrate” a sidewalk exhibition of pro-American art, which is now being shipped to US military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan with shipments of coffee and cookies, the Move Forward America website said.

On 29 July, Attorney General Lockyer issued a statement saying that the exhibition is one of many which the California Department of Justice has sponsored over the past six years at no expense to taxpayers. He added that he did not endorse any of the works of art. “But neither my taste, nor anyone else’s, should determine how much free speech others get to exercise,” he said. While some critics wanted to see him “act like a Soviet-style government censor” and remove works deemed offensive, he said he would not “engage in such censorship. The Constitution prohibits it”.

The US Supreme Court, he added, has stated that the government cannot decide “which types of otherwise protected speech are sufficiently offensive to require protection for the unwilling listener or viewer”.

The exhibition is sponsored by the California Arts Council, the Sacramento County Public Law Library (where it was previously shown), and California Lawyers for the Arts, a pro bono group which provides legal assistance for the arts.

According to Move Forward America, over 3,000 people have signed petitions demanding that the Attorney General remove the “offensive anti-American art” from the government building. These were delivered to the Attorney General’s office on 10 August by 15-year old Andy Nevis, a conservative blogger from Sacramento, who has become a champion of the cause. The petition states that the painting “is offensive to most of the residents of California and America” and “does not belong in a government, taxpayer-supported office”. Mr Nevis’s blog (www.blogger. com/profile/6899866) has been “growing exponentially”, the Move Forward America website says.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Anti-Bush painting enrages Republicans'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 161 September 2005