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  • Flushing Bush - Protests Over Political Artwork
    July 21, 2005 San Diego Union-Tibune
    By Kathleen Hennessey

    SACRAMENTO – A painting on display at the Department of Justice depicting a star-spangled map of United States being flushed down a toilet has sparked a debate over free speech and good taste.

    The piece, titled "T'anks to Mr. Bush," is part of an exhibit sponsored by California Lawyers for the Arts. The California Arts Council presented the show in conjunction with the attorney general's office, and the paintings hang in the building's cafeteria.

    The California Republican Party, along with conservative bloggers and a Sacramento talk radio host, have called on Attorney General Bill Lockyer to remove the painting from the exhibit.

    "All we want is some common sense decency from the state attorney general," said Republican Party spokeswoman Karen Hanretty, adding that the artwork is "blatantly offensive to people who think that America does not belong in the toilet" and that such art does not belong in a public building.

    The artist, Berkeley lawyer Stephen Pearcy, has pushed political and artistic buttons before. In February, he hung a soldier's uniform with a helmet and gloves from the top of his Sacramento home with a note reading "Bush Lied, I Died." Protesters twice removed the piece, which was later dubbed "Effigy Art."

    Pearcy said "T'anks to Mr. Bush" took him about 20 minutes to complete on July 4, 2003. He said it was intended to reflect his concern about Americans and what he called their "fanatical level of patriotism" in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

    "The goal is to create something quick and put in the minimum amount of effort, and get the maximum amount of communication," Pearcy said, adding that he was surprised when California Lawyers for the Arts approached him about contributing to the exhibit.

    The painting is one of a handful of works on display that take aim at the Bush administration. Two pieces include the image of a hooded Abu Graib prisoner, while another, called "The Liberator," depicts the president riding out of the desert in the bell tower of a church mounted on a tank.

    The Pearcy piece was singled out by KTKZ talk radio host Eric Hogue and conservative bloggers this week. By Wednesday afternoon, the Conservative Schooler blog had collected 272 signatures on a petition requesting the painting's removal.

    "The attorney general would never allow artwork that is offensive to the gay or lesbian community, or art that showed violence toward women to be hung in the Department of Justice," Hanretty said. "He likes the controversy."

    Hanretty said she had not seen the exhibit, and only learned of the painting from listening to Hogue's show.

    Lockyer spokesman Nathan Barankin defended the piece and said that Lockyer, who has an anti-censorship poster displayed in his office, had no plans to take the painting down.

    "It makes a very strong point, and one that a lot of people disagree with," Barankin said of the painting.

    A version of the lawyers' art show titled "A Creative Merger: Lawyers and Artists" was first displayed in the Sacramento County Public Law Library. It is funded by private donors.

    Ellen Taylor, the Sacramento program director for California Lawyers for the Arts, said the show was intended to be thought-provoking and is surprised by the focus on the Pearcy piece.

    "What upsets me is the thought that a group of people thinks that only certain kinds of art should be allowed and some kind of art should be suppressed," she said, adding that works expressing a more conservative political opinion would have been included in the show, if the curator had received any.

    "None were submitted," she said.