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The word was “fucking,” and Cory Oberndorfer didn’t come up with it himself. The D.C.-based artist, who finished installing his mural, “Bitter/Sweet,” at American University’s Katzen Arts Center last week, had gathered phrases for his text-based work from an online survey he’d conducted last year.
Wednesday night, he found out via text that a university administrator might have a problem with one of the words he’d used. Yesterday morning, Oberndorfer was looped into an email thread with an administrator who gave him an ultimatum: Cover the offending word or destroy the entire work. So he painted over it with a black rectangle (above), just barely covering the letters’ midsection, a censor bar that lets some of the word still poke through.
“It was ridiculous,” Oberndorfer says. “Yes, it was profanity, but it’s on a university campus and in an arts center, and given the context of the mural, I don’t think it was presented in an offensive way.”
“Bitter/Sweet” is a network of candy hearts emblazoned with the answers to Oberndorfer’s love and heartache-themed survey questions: What’s the most romantic thing anyone’s ever said to you? The most hurtful thing? What are your favorite and least favorite clichés about love?
As part of AU’s alumni artist series, the university invited Oberndorfer to do a piece at the Katzen. He proposed the mural about a year ago and, after it was approved, secured a $7,000 Community Arts Program grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. (A spokesperson for the arts commission says DCCAH is not currently in conversation with Oberndorfer or the university about this project: “It’s an AU issue right now.”)
Oberndorfer didn’t anticipate using any R-rated language—that’s not usually his style. But since his work was to be based on public response, he couldn’t be sure. Because the Katzen is often used as a venue for public events, some of which were booked before Oberndorfer finalized the content of his mural, he agreed to cover any potentially offensive words during special events. Painting over a portion of the work was never part of the agreement.
Now, Oberndorfer is working with AU associate art professor Zoe Charlton to find a better way forward for his mural. In an ideal world, he says, he’d restore his work to its original state (below). “This is a bigger issue about sensitivity and censorship,” Charlton says. “What we’d like to do in our department and program is be an advocate for the artist….It’s a really wonderful piece and we need opportunities to talk about these bigger issues surrounding censorship.”
Charlton says she plans to organize a public forum on censorship with other departments and students, where Oberndorfer can discuss the challenges of working in a large institution and the artistic decisions he made in the piece.
Update, 2/5/15: At the direction of university officials, Oberndorfer repainted his mural to its original state on Monday night. He will temporarily cover up the word “fucking” by request for special events.
The university released a statement confirming that the art would be un-censored: “American University will not censor art. The mural, “Bitter/Sweet” by Cory Oberndorfer, currently showing in the center will remain there. The center will work with Mr. Oberndorfer to restore the mural to its original state. However, we hope that the community appreciates our intention to be sensitive and responsible as we display art in a very public space. As much as our goal is to preserve and share the vision of artists, we must also consider the young students, children, parents, and all members of the community who grace our halls throughout the day.”
On Facebook, Charlton reemphasized the art department’s support of the mural: “Some of the comments around the display of Bitter/Sweet are unfortunate; however, we are super excited about the conversations that his work has generated. Sensitivity, art in public spaces, collegiality, institutional support, relevance…Arts ability to provoke and inspire…these are the issues that engage us, our students and the greater DC community in which we belong. We love you DC! From the inception of the mural, Cory let us know that he felt sensitive to the collaborative nature of the project and the communities that use the space on a regular basis. We are glad that the work will be restored to its original form and look forward to continuing to support wonderful projects in the Katzen Arts Center.”
Photos by Cory Oberndorfer