Friday, January 8, 2010

Fine Art Of Book Destruction On Display At Library

Books Destroyed In The Name Of Art.
(Photo Courtesy Of Linda Thompson For The Missoulian.)

The University of Montana's Mansfield Library will play host to a controversial art exhibit beginning January 7, 2010. "Speaking Volumes: Transforming Hate" is an exhibit based on the deliberate destruction of books. A feature article on the exhibit in the January 3 Missoulian Online generated a firestorm of heated comments, pro and con. Roughly 4,000 books were rendered unreadable by over 100 artists to create the art works represented in the library's gallery. All of the books were donated by one man--known only by the initials "J.R."--in exchange for nothing more than a one-way ticket out of Montana.

The mysterious benefactor of this piece is--not unlike Abel Magwitch in Great Expectations--a convict and gang member. (Magwitch was part of a chain gang; J.R. a member of a biker gang.) J.R.'s affiliation with another group brings the books into the story. While working as a mechanic for a mining company in 1973, he came into contact with members of The Church of the Creator. (The name "Church of the Creator" has since been awarded to the fomer TE-TA-MA Truth Foundation in a trademark litigation ruling against the "Church of the Creator" discussed here.) He soon became a fervent convert, and eventually worked his way up to a leadership role in a local branch of the church.

The Primary Text Of The Church Of The Creator.

The Church of the Creator may sound like a benign religious organization, but is revealed to be something very different with one look at the group's core publication: The White Man's Bible. This bible dismisses those who follow all major religions stating that "Christianity is a hoax created by the Jews" and following up with: "In between the low end of the ladder and the White Race at the top are various other races, such as the redskin Indians, the mongrelized Hindus of India, the yellow Asiatics, the yellow Semitic Jews, the Polynesians, the Semitic Arabs and a host of others. We classify them all simply as the mud races as distinguished from the White Race, only the latter occupying the very top pinnacle of the human ladder." The "creator" here is the supposedly superior "white race." No God involved.

In addition to The White Man's Bible, The Church of the Creator's founder, Ben Klassen, self-published 13 other books before he committed suicide in 1993. All espouse white supremacy and white separatism, neo-Nazism, and the inevitability of a "racial holy war". These books sold for $10.00 each, and were the primary source of the Church's income, aside from member donations. (Book sales were apparently sluggish, as J.R. reported the average monthly sales income at a paltry $100.) As "Hasta Primas" (Second In Command) of his branch of the church, J.R. was given the key to a storage locker containing over 4,200 copies of Klassen's books.

In December 2003, J.R. became disillusioned with "The Church of the Creator," and contacted their primary opposition in Montana, The Montana Human Rights Network. He agreed to sell his inventory of Klassen's works in exchange for enough cash to make a quick exit from "The Treasure State." Fearing reprisals from the group, he asked that the Human Rights Network keep his donation anonymous. Upon learning of the books falling into enemy hands, The Church of the Creator reported them as stolen. But the Human Rights Network not only had a legitimate bill of sale, (although the price paid per book was less than 15 cents.), but also pointed out that The Church of the Creator's assets had been garnished upon loss of a $1 million lawsuit to the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1994. The Law Center had never attempted to claim the books as a part of the settlement, believing the cost of moving them would be prohibitive. They were, however, happy that the Human Rights Network had taken them out of circulation.

A Mixed Media Work Created By Lee Child For Speaking Volumes: Transforming Hate.
(Photo Courtesy Of Linda Thompson For The Missoulian.)

The Montana Human Rights Network was now faced with the thorny question of how to dispose of the books and still come out smelling like a rose. They feared if they pulped or burned the books outright they would appear to be violating the church's freedom of speech. The Network instead opted to send boxed sets of all 13 titles to Holocaust museums, human rights groups, law enforcement organizations, and academic libraries. But this still left them with thousands of books. A member of the Network contacted Helena-area artist Tim Holmes about creating an art exhibit with the books to provoke discussion about racism, anti-Semitism, and intolerance. Holmes contacted the Holter Musuem of Art, and, by January 2008, 60 artworks created from the white supremacist books were displayed in the first showing of what became Speaking Volumes: Transforming Hate.

Works created for the exhibit include a re-edit of one book's text by Charles Gute, which reverses the original message; a short story--which completely ignored the books-- about racism written and illustrated by children's book author Faith Ringgold; a book with every word individually cut out, leaving only a lacy, white series of spider-webbed pages by Ariana Boussard-Reifel; and “Hate Begins At Home,” a 10-by-10-foot house constructed from the books--nearly 3,000 of them-- by Dana Boussard.

Dana Boussard and Ariana Boussard-Reifel Completing Work On Hate Begins At Home.
(Photo Courtesy Of Linda Thompson For The Missoulian.)

This year's debut of the expanded exhibit has drawn fire from those on both ends of the political spectrum. An article praising the exhibit as a positive transformation of hate into art, akin to making lemons into lemonade, has drawn 18 online comments so far. Here is a sampling--with the original grammar, spelling, and punctuation-- of some of the reactions:

"The 'Creativity Movement' is a religion and this destruction of books is nothing more than discrimination. how would a jew act if you did this to the Torah? so what makes you think that your 'art form' is nothing more than your own 'expression of hate'."

"Isn't this just book burning for the Twenty First Century? The Nazis have been quite rightly criticised for book burning and censorship of works deemed 'Un Germanic' . I see no difference in this fluffy middle class art and a literary pyre in '30s Berlin."

"Destroying literature is something that in my opinion is a fascist thing to do. i for one would have liked to enlighten myself with the reading of those books."

"No compromise with the Nazis, now or ever."

"I find it unfortunate that, too often, hate is isolated in such a way as to be a 'white only' thing when, in reality, many of the fiercest and most unrelenting racists amongst us are not white. Hate is a human condition, not a 'white' human condition."

Dana Boussard's Performance Art Piece Based On The Text Of The Books, Like Mother Like Daughter.
(Photo Courtesy Of Linda Thompson For The Missoulian.)

"What a wonderful way to start the new decade. May civility return to America. Montanans, we can lead the way."

"Clip this article and site it next time someone says that the arts are a luxury and not needed in the schools. You have to be able to dream past the impasses in our lives; the arts help do that."

"The next time you work to keep literature off public shelves, expect indignation. The next time you use hate to oppose hate, expect disgust. The next time you call someone “infamous,” expect to be disparaged. The next time you steal books, expect someone to daydream about reprisal. The next time you put up a newspaper article to badmouth and restrict others, expect your victims to go underground and amplify their concerns."

Speaking Volumes: Transforming Hate
will continue to push people's buttons at the Mansfield Library until March 6, 2010. Censorship is always a tricky topic. Most of us find it very easy to be against it, until we are confronted with something we find completely unacceptable. Then the conversation changes, and freedom of the press no longer applies to whatever it is we've decided is simply intolerable. Too bad that what is objectionable to one person might be the gospel of another.

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