One of the least consequential controversies of the past year has taken a federal judge to resolve, but the decision came out the right (that is to say, sensible) way.
For those readers who have been locked in dungeons or marooned on desert islands for the past year, this contretemps commenced when Gov. Paul LePage (whose sensitivities are always finely tuned to the concerns of liberals) decided that a mural on the walls of an anteroom at the state Department of Labor was, well, propagandistically one-sided.
So, he ordered it removed. You might think that order would have been a decision well within his job description – he is, after all, the chief executive of the state and the mural was in a room in an agency that is under his supervision – but if you thought that, you clearly didn’t understand that this work of “art” had the status of a holy icon to its defenders.
The mural, commissioned at a cost of $50,000 in public funds, depicted “the history of the labor movement in Maine” inside a public building devoted to balancing labor and business interests.
The 11-panel mural was so neutral that it depicted no business owners whatsoever, but included past and present state occupational figures and union leaders (and, oddly, the late West Coast grape-pickers union activist Cesar Chavez).
Even more oddly, it also prominently depicted Gov. John Baldacci’s labor commissioner, Laura Fortman, a former head of the Maine Women’s Lobby, who was in charge of the department when the mural was created and installed.
Some might find this glorification of an appointed official at a $50,000 cost to taxpayers distasteful and perhaps even self-serving, but apparently that wasn’t the opinion of the mural’s defenders – and it obviously wasn’t Commissioner Fortman’s view.
Outraged at LePage’s act of blasphemy, the mural’s defenders launched a series of scathing attacks against the governor, accusing him of everything from an anti-labor animus to a boorish insensitivity to “art” that came close to being a crime against humanity.
In other words, they didn’t like him. Or, for that matter, the horse he rode in on.
Along the way, however, they took a piece of minimally talented hackery in the service of one particular political point of view and elevated it to a work of art that, if it had not been commissioned specifically for the Maine Labor Department’s waiting room, would have otherwise been hanging beside the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.
The mural was removed and placed in storage, but those who disagreed with this decision wouldn’t be deterred from expressing their outrage. So, they sued in federal court to have it reinstalled, claiming that its removal was a violation of the artist’s “freedom of expression,” a “right protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.”
Unfortunately for them, U.S. District Judge John Woodcock Jr. had a different opinion. He ruled last week that: “The governor has as much right not to project a message about the history of Maine labor in a state-owned mural as he would to decline to read aloud a history of labor in Maine written by the prior administration. In other words,” Judge Woodcock wrote, “as the Supreme Court (has) held, a government entity has the right to speak for itself.”
So, he ruled, the mural was indeed the same as a speech or a written document – but only a partisan speech or document produced by a political entity. Thus, it was capable of being rejected when political fortunes changed and those holding a different view came into office.
This, of course, was exactly what the governor’s defenders had been saying all along. As a LePage administration spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, put it: “We’ve always felt this was a frivolous, politically motivated lawsuit. It would be stunning if government officials were to be barred from making different artistic choices than their predecessors.”
True enough, but that didn’t stop the plaintiffs’ attorney, Jeffrey Neil Young, from calling the mural’s removal “nothing less than government censorship of artistic speech in violation of the First Amendment.”
That is, if I disagree with you, it’s free speech; if you disagree with me, it’s censorship.
So I’ll say the same thing about that point of view as I did the last time I wrote about this issue: If partisan political art is sacrosanct and can never be touched once it is installed, then Republicans should use their current majority in the Legislature to commission an artist to create huge banners with the images of Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley Jr. and Milton Friedman on them, and hang them from the four sides of the State House.
Liberals, of course, would then have to leave them there forever.
Art is art, after all – and fair is fair.
M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer. He can be contacted at [email protected]