Friday evening, a group of local citizens — students, activists, interested participant/observers, members of the press, and a surprisingly spare handful of professors — gathered at USM in Portland, preparing to march to Congress Square.
JAIL BREAK: Censorship on parade.
A select few individuals took turns displaying one of the two original Thomas Manning paintings, both wrapped in plastic, and handing out color reproductions of the rest of Manning’s body of work which had been part of the “Can’t Jail the Spirit” exhibition that was cancelled by the University of Southern Maine.
This was a pragmatic way of dealing with the dearth of original works — most folks seemed to have imagined a parade of paintings rather than just a pair of them — and a thoughtful method for involving the crowd in an aesthetic as well as a political experience, giving each the chance to choose one for him or herself, a prop for the procession as well as a souvenir.
Two young women held corners of a hand-painted canvas banner bearing the title of the disappeared exhibition. The letters in the word “SPIRIT” were rendered from a brushy tangle of human bodies. The lower left corner of the banner was a mass of red — flames upon closer inspection — and the right was a lush green meadow sloping to meet the sea in the middle. Humans of all colors and creeds danced around the words and an eagle soared above them. Absolutely the right idea — stark, direct, no-nonsense but still a bit of fun, like all good agit-prop — but unfortunately absolutely illegible from farther than twenty feet.
I asked a young gentleman who seemed to be one of the organizers of the march whether there were any more of Manning’s paintings apart from the two that they had mobilized. He seemed perplexed by the question. But he was right; making all of Manning’s paintings themselves visible in their entirety was not really the objective of this event.
However interesting it would have been to witness a walking exhibition, the entire contents of a repressed show turned out in their totality to thread their way down the street, amid traffic, through the park, and to the city square, that was not what was at stake for the collective of desires and agendas that cohered around this event.
Indeed, those two originals were sufficient to symbolize, and communicate to anyone watching, participating, or reading about it after the fact, the idea that the crowd was marching not for the art but against its censorship. So these two paintings were enough to authorize and authenticate the color reproductions that could now march in everyone’s hands, and that was really the point, whether it had been premeditated or not.
It has been fascinating to watch the way in which, throughout this controversy, the art itself has been almost totally elided; people have taken pains to note that the truly contentious issue has been Manning’s representation as a political prisoner — a question of language, law, and rhetoric — and not his art, its form, style, or content. And on the face of it the painting, which is not especially technically accomplished, seems to be the kind you could easily ignore or forget about. The subject matter — human beings, animals, creatures in bondage wanting to be free — can’t help but speak to a viewer, but does so in a fairly chalky painterly language. All of this amounts to a situation in which the art has been allowed not to matter much; where the art is not, in and of itself, the matter.