Tasteless Art vs. The First Ammendment

We have a guy in our town who is in serious trouble. Last year, he was arrested after he created the sculpture of a bare torso and placed it in the front yard of his home (he already had a life size sculpture of his buttocks). A neighbor called 911 to complain that the statue was obscene, and he was charged. Despite being charged with more than $300,000 in fines, he had refused to remove the statues because he says he is covered by the First Ammendment and the freedom of speech. He is now in jail awaiting sentence in November.(felony charge)

Since reading this story I started hunting for other “artists” that may have caused conflict and I came across the following. (This is more of a serious nature).

I would like to draw your attention to a controversial artist in NY named Clinton Boisvert.

Boisvert placed a bunch of Fed Express boxes in the Union Square subway station. The boxes were spray-painted black; each bore the single word “Fear.”

The police and bomb squad arrived; and the subway trains were stopped, leaving commuters worried, inconvenienced, and annoyed.

Apparently, the police feared that the boxes were part of an act of terrorism, and might contain weapons.

Boisvert was criminally charged for putting the boxes in the station. Should he have been? Can art that mimics, or comments on terrorism be a kind of criminal conduct?

Should the First Amendment have provided a defense for Boisvert’s actions? After all, his art event took place in a public place, and it involved both actual speech (the word “Fear”) and symbolic speech, in the form of the black boxes.

IMO this type of “art” is no different from someone yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. It is meant to cause fear and confusion, and give jollies to the perpetrator.

From a Christian perspective if you look up some of the writings of the Apostle Paul… We are to seek after things which are praise worthy and of good report… By what Paul talks about, classical paintings, books, etc…are indeed art… (IMO) The work of Boisvert is not nor the guy in my town for that matter.

Once he got out of that jam he decided on another piece of art which is more a commentary on terrorism, than a facsimile of it. Boisvert’s second work included a metal male figure with a penis covered with photos of 9/11 victims. He placed it in Union Square http://www.nypress.net/print.cfm?content_id=8385 Although he wasn’t charged for this piece of artwork he could have been.

I realize that not all statements can be made in a feel good eye pleasing way, and just because something doesn’t have pleasant eye appeal doesn’t mean that it isn’t without merit. But please this artwork stinks to high heaven!


Good, uncontroversial art doesn’t NEED protection.

The bare torso/buttocks art also seems fine to me.

I’m a little more waffly on the FedEx boxes: those are far too close to communicating a threat, which isn’t legal. He apparently knew how people would interpret them, and he apparently considered that interpretation to be art. I disagree: it sounds to me like he intentionally caused people to feel threatened, which is not protected speech, I believe.


If its tasteless, it isn’t art.

Tasteless according to whom?

And where is “art” mentioned in the first amendment, anyway? It’s about freedom of expression, not about artistic worthiness.

Red herring.


Unpopular speech is that which needs protection the most.

So far as I know, this is utterly false.

What classical paintings? What classical books? Paul spent most of his ministry outside Jerusalem. He was a circuit rider, visiting persecuted communities established long before he converted. What Christian art would there be when he visited Ephesus? Corinth? If these people made any public renderings of Jesus, they’d die! It would be destroyed! Besides, Christianity in it’s beginnings was overwhelmingly a religion of the working poor, when would they have the time to create a fresco?

As for the books: scrolls. They used scrolls. And at that time, poor probably also translated to illiterate, so what use would a scroll be?

By and large, Christian art at that time didn’t exist. The earliest image that we have of Jesus is a small bit of Roman grafitti. It’s on a wall in Rome, and crudely depicts Jesus, with the head of an ass, on a cross. In Vulgar Latin below, it says"This is your God!"

Now, all of this is stuff I learned in a class, Images of Jesus. But I’m supposing Christian art. Let’s say that Paul got a glimpse of Roman and Greek art on his travels. What would he have seen? Is this what you were
thinking? (In case you’re wondering, I found those pictures on Google, and then posted them to my site, for ease of reference. Any Google Image search with the words “Roman statue” would yield the same results.) Isabelle, this was exactly the kind of art that Paul disliked!

I’m a Christian as well, and I must admit I find your zeal refreshing. It’s rare nowadays. But please, please, be sure that your claims are correct.

I would like to take a moment and regroup. That was some great information you relayed SUPERKARLENE Thank you for the cites and comments.

What I was trying to express was Paul meant seek after things that are good and up lifting…that inspire, enlighten etc…When the concept is applied to the question then, we get that we should seek after good things…literature and art that enlighten and inspire are such things…read Les Miserable by Victor Hugo…compare it to the scriptures…you will find that the wrting has noble purpose…

Does that sound better?

Alright, now some of that I can agree with. FTR, I actually HAVE read Les Miserables, and I loved it. And yes, I agree with you on Paul’s message.


Definitions of “uplifting” and “enlightening” will vary greatly from one person to another. My brother adores Nirvana, and when asked why, he’ll tell you that he finds their candor “liberating and uplifting, because someone else in the world feels as I do.” I like Nirvana too, but I really wouldn’t characterize it as uplifting.

But something else to chew on - not all people are Christians, so mandating that their work be “enlightening” or “uplifting” is a bit much, don’t you think? :wink:

You don’t have a right to put the Mona Lisa in a subway station (public property), nor do you have to the right to put boxes there. This seems pretty cut and dry. At a minimum, the guy is guilty of littering.

The lawn torso is more along the lines of free speech. But there clearly are laws against public display of pornography, so I’ll leave it up to the courts to decide where the torso lies on the art/porongraphy scale. “I knoiw it when I see it” and all that…

Oh for crying out LOUD, Isabelle!

I will agree that the second guy in the article was a dumbass-technically, he was littering, not creating art.

But where the hell does it say in the First Amendment about an exemption for “tasteless” things?

What he said. If all you’re defending is the easy stuff, then you aren’t defending anything at all.

And the whole “uplifting and beautiful” criterion strikes me as being dangerously meaningless, because what makes us feel good tends to pander to our unexamined assumptions, from which we don’t learn anything. Or to frame it in the terms of a modern art form with which we’re all familiar: A good movie is one that asks interesting and even difficult questions. A popular movie is one that pretends our collectively agreed-upon answers to those questions are right.

It seems to me that annoying or infuriating art is some of the most interesting, because that response illuminates important aspects of human existence. That doesn’t mean it’s always good art, but at least it’s interesting, whereas a Kinkade canvas, for a contrasting example, contains (IMO) zero interest and zero artistic value.

The thing about the frightening boxes in the subway station, I will admit, is extremely problematic. I would say that if the artist is satisfied with the reaction he evinced, then he made bad art. Indeed, he may as well have simply pulled the fire alarm. Conceptually, it’s interesting, and may have had merit with better execution; he might have stylized the boxes more, to make it somewhat clearer they were intended as an installation, while keeping enough of the iconography to bring out the disquiet that was ultimately intended. He might also have worked with the authorities to place the work in a more formal fashion, so as to avoid the overreaction that took place. He would thus have been able to make his statement in a valid and artistic manner, and avoid the repercussions that his clumsy attempt actually provoked.

If the sole criterion for judging the value of an artwork is that it be “beautiful and uplifting,” then we might as well toss out the majority of the 20th century’s masterworks and fill our museums with ceramic kittens whose pedestals are embossed “#1 Grandma.”

I guess I look on the subway art like this: art is legal, as long as you’re not breaking some unrelated law.

I can’t throw a baseball at your head, giving you a concussion, and defend myself by saying that the bruise on your forehead is art. Art or no, I’ll still get arrested for aggravated assault, and rightly so.

Similarly, I can’t plant something that looks like a terrorist threat in the subways, intending for people to think it’s a terrorist threat, and defend myself by claiming that your reaction constitutes art. Art or no, I’ll still get arrested for making a threat of terrorism, and rightly so.

However, having a nude in my yard does nothing BEYOND express myself. Art or no, I shouldn’t get arrested. The question isn’t whether it’s good art or bad art; the question is whether it has an effect that falls outside of protected free speech.


If we go by the “uplifting” criteria, well, that lets out Schindler’s List.


I’m not going to comment on whether or not he should have been charged because I don’t know enough about the case, but I think you’re wrong about what the art was meant to do. Judging by your description, it was meant to highlight irrational fear and confusion, which is not quite the same as meaning to cause fear and confusion just for the sake of causing them. Yelling “fire” usually would have no other reasons behind it, while this display clearly did even if we don’t approve or don’t agree.

In your opinion. I submit that your opinion is not to be trusted. The entire point of the first amendment is to protect speech that may be unpopular at a certain time and place. And rightly so, IMO.
In reference to this:

Seeing the Word “fear” written in a puiblic place is adequate reason to panic? What sort of trembling wrecks have we become? What rational person would think that a collection of cardboard boxes, with the word “Fear” spray-painted on them, is some sort of terrorist weapon?

OK, so Boisvert was arrested. From the limited description by the OP, it appears that charges were reduced or dropped (“he got out of the jam he was in”) and again rightly so, IMO.

Terrorists generally try to make their bombs as inconspicuous as possible. Those boxes screamed for attention.

Uh, BTW, I should qualify my earleir statement. I realize that no one should be expected to automatically ‘get’ conceptual art pieces; I was responding to the suggestion that the artist was somehow trying to ‘get his jollies’ from frightening people, which I cannot believe was the artist’s intention, at least from the description provided here.

If anything, he’s guilty of littering, which has a penalty, and perhaps of making bad art, which, thankfully has none (otherwise the jails would be overflowing even worse than they are now).

So if I pull my penis out in front of my grandma in a ‘stylized fashion’ — a fashion that shows the exposure is intended as “art” - and if I choose to do that at the next gramdma inspired family reunion ---- it’s “art," because I framed it that way — “bad art” I admit, but it creates a response we all need to consider. No? The point is this ----- I have to wonder if the word “art” hasn’t become so inclusive as to become meaningless – I also have to wonder if some “artists” aren’t merely in a race to become the most uncivil in the rush to make their artistic statement. The “civility” that may in fact genetically bond us as social animals – The civility that really keeps us from eating each others souls - I mean, shouldn’t “art” be doing that instead?

And his reason for not applying for a city permit (and thereby informing police to the artist’s TRUE intentions) to display his “art” on public property is?

I’ll answer that question…because he feels that his “artistic rights to free speech” should encompass playing on the fears of a jittery public and the fear/shock value he creates in public is his art. I agree with the OP, this virtually yelling “Fire” in a public forum, a far cry from art. He is not an artist in this regard, merely a pandering prankster. He should foot the bill for the police and bomb squad call.

It always has been. It’s only recently that we’ve figured this out.