Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Art Police - Up to Their Old Tricks, as Always

A cardboard summons
Back at Union Square for just less than two weeks Occupy had found a more resilient and friendly park for Occupation but the NYPD kept odd stride in enforcing whatever laws they could just make up with the help of the Federal Parks Department - rangers that actually have jurisdiction in the actual park and not the sidewalk surrounding. With an age-old Occupy hobby of making snarky signs, Occupiers found themselves battling with police (figuratively of course) over cardboard. Yes. Cardboard.  New rule says you can't have any cardboard on the ground - cardboard signs that is. Never mind that other park people, let's say chess players and other artists can have cardboard as part of their displays - it's the Occupiers who can't have any cardboard. And since I was wearing an Occupy t-shirt, and painting funny cardboard signs, that meant me.

Expensive speech
And so, in line with too many artists from the past, I found myself with a summons for 'unlawful vending' ($250), a charge that shouldn't stick because artists are not technically vendors and instead are just exercising their first amendment rights to free speech - be it artistic speech - yet we are able to take donations for the work. But that's not how the boys in green (Federal Park Rangers) want to see it. And so the routine went like this: One ranger came by and told me that all art needed to be 12" off the ground, and I said, "I can do that" - so I got some boxes and put the 'art' on the boxes. Then another ranger came by and said the 12" wasn't good enough, that the work must be on a table. And so I said, "I can do that", and proceeded to fashion the boxes into the shape of a table. A cardboard table. "Whoop Whoop!" That's the sound of the siren on the ranger-mobile. This time ranger Charlemagne was on the street adjacent to the sidewalk where art can be shown and motioning for me to come to his truck. Once there he tells me that 'table' meant a portable table with folding legs and assures me that he can produce documentation to support the claim. I argue that the cardboard legs of my table fold, but that of course, gets me absolutely nowhere.

Looking at the ticket above you'll see that the ranger had a choice of fines to assess, from $25 to $250. He chose $250. Bad cardboard, bad cardboard. And so on May 15th I will go to the court and argue the charge. Other artists at the park assure me that it will be dropped on the grounds of my art being a protest and that my medium specifically is cardboard. We'll see. In whatever case, I will waste 1/2 a day and if the officer shows up, he will be paid an overtime rate for his trouble. I, of course, will be paid nothing + the nothing I got for setting my display up in the first place. This is the price we all pay for living in a police state, a state where law enforcement can illegally enforce any law they dream up (whilst being paid a living wage) and the citizens must pay to defend themselves against the state.

Enter Robert Lederman. "Lederman is perhaps best known as the artist who painted hundreds of satirical portraits of NYC Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Giuliani had Lederman falsely arrested, but never once convicted, more than 40 times between 1994 and 2000. The Giuliani portraits appeared thousands of times in the media during the Giuliani era and were a constant subject of controversy during those years. Lederman was featured in the documentary It’s Giuliani Time. His successful lawsuits made it legal to sell art on the street without a license, in NYC Parks without a permit and to protest without a permit on the steps of the U.S. Capitol."

As the officer was giving me my ticket I asked him if he was aware that there was a jobs crisis in America these days (probably the most notable underlying reason for the Occupy movement) and that he was stopping me from making even a street artist living. No response. I then told him that he could go home assuredly that night and tell his children how he had made America a better country that day. No response. Of course.

No doubt a host of headhunters and possible work contacts will be reading this post and wondering what this guy is up to doing street art activism (I spent the week sending out work queries) - and to them I say this: "You want to inspire the troops? You want your staff, or clients, to see what survival and creativity and persistence of freedom of speech and commerce looks like in real terms - in street-cred terms?" Show them a picture of me sitting on the ground painting, surrounded by 20 officers. That photo will get the company a whole lot more respect than a nice picture of me in a suit doing a Powerpoint presentation - no matter how damn good I might look in the suit.

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