Mirth Girth (painting)

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Date: 1988

Region: North America

Subject: Political/Economic/Social Opinion

Medium: Painting


Image obtained from thefileroom.org

Artist: David Nelson

Confronting Bodies: Chicago Aldermen and community

Dates of Action: May 11, 1988

Location: Chicago, IL

Description of Artwork: Nelson's painting depicted then recently deceased mayor, Harold Washington, in women's lingerie.Nelson's painting depicted then recently deceased mayor, Harold Washington, in women's lingerie.

The Incident: On May 11, David K. Nelson, a graduating senior at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago, chose to exhibit a painting of the late Mayor Harold Washington. The painting was exhibited for less than an hour when members of the school staff, who were offended by the painting, brought it to the attention of the administration. Many expressed revulsion at the work and recommended its removal. Phone calls expressing objections towards the painting began flowing into the school the next day along with the arrival of press photographers and reporters.

David Nelson contacted school administration two days into the controversy. The administration requested Nelson to voluntarily withdraw his painting from the exhibition, but he wouldn't decide until the following day. That same day, Chicago Aldermen William Henry and Ernest Jones arrived at the school, accompanied by three uniformed police officers. The aldermen expressed their objections to the painting in front of the cameras and other press. Ignoring the protests of students and school security, the aldermen removed the painting from exhibition and placed it on the floor, facing the wall. Students who had witnessed the removal of the painting hung it back up on the wall.

As several more students and members of the press gathered around the painting, more aldermen arrived and forcibly removed the painting from the exhibition and attempted to take it out of the building, but security stopped them and suggested speaking with the president of the school, Tony Jones.

The aldermen arrived in the Jone's office with two plain clothes police detectives and the painting with a six inch gash in the canvas. Members of the school's and museum's public affairs offices were called in along with higher ranking police officers called in by school security. This meeting lasted two hours, while the school's staff discovered that they had met with Nelson's impostor that day and would not be able to reach the real Nelson for the entire four day dispute.

The aldermen stated to school officials and police that they were carrying out a city resolution to remove the painting, but in actuality the resolution was only a request for the removal. Aldermen then convinced police to "arrest" the painting and removed it from the building.

Results of Incident: A Judge ruled four years after the incident that three aldermen had violated Nelson's first amendment rights, and as a result would receive damages escalating into millions of dollars.

Source: CAC Censorship Archive