Letters, week of March 7, 2012

Don’t ban Otterness artwork

To the Editor: 
Re: Sculptor Deserves Forgiveness (Talking Point, Feb. 29, 2012)

Battery Park City is home of much of the art of public sculptor Tom Otterness, whose work has delighted thousands of residents and passersby. When one more piece of his art was recommended for our public library (a lions sculpture), a Downtown Express reporter pointed out in 2008 that Mr. Otterness had done something horrible as a young man in the 1970s: he had shot a dog in a short film as a form of war protest. This article had a few residents complaining in letters to the editor that Otterness’ art should therefore be banned.

Last spring, Community Board 1 voted 5-to-1 in complete approval of the “Otterness Lions,” which he was to donate to the community (officially, he donated them to the Battery Park City Authority).  The B.P.C.A., which had just turned over to a new leadership team under former City Comptroller and Mayoral hopeful William Thompson, sighted improper procedures, and decided to pass on the art donation, effectively banning the artwork. Thompson has not responded to regular requests to continue discussion.

Yet there were no improper procedures: in fact there have been meetings conducted in accordance with the B.P.C.A.’s guidance of C.B. 1 at B.P.C.A. headquarters since the spring of 2008 discussing the Otterness lions, but Thompson’s B.P.C.A. claims they were not aware of them. Hence, Thompson’s B.P.C.A. rejected free C.B.-approved art for our area, which would have amounted to a potential savings of $750,000. Taking the B.P.C.A. and Thompson’s lead, San Francisco picked up these New York decisions and news stories, and proceeded to successfully reject, and thus ban, Otterness as well. The San Francisco Arts Commission terminated a $750,000 Central Subway art contract with artist Tom Otterness. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee called for a freeze on all Otterness contracts.

I cannot image banning art in our town due to an immoral past deed of an artist. Under such scrutiny, our libraries and museums would be nearly empty. For example, imagine if those who opposed abortion removed all museum art by women who had abortions? I love Naked Lunch by William Burroughs – didn’t he kill his wife with a bow and arrow?  Our B.P.C. Library has a copy of Naked Lunch. Does this send a message that Otterness next time should kill his wife and not shoot a dog?

Why is the B.P.C.A. under Bill Thompson effectively banning art in front of a public library? This effective banning of art has gone mostly without notice but should be revisited with the news of Thompson announcing his Mayoral run. Are the voters of New York comfortable with this type of decision? I agree with your recent op-ed and strongly advise Mr. Thompson to revisit this decision and accept this free gift of community art, which has been thoroughly vetted and is from an artist whose work already adorns and is loved by our neighborhood.
Tom Goodkind

Don’t expect forgiveness, Otterness

To the Editor: 
Re: Sculptor Deserves Forgiveness (Talking Point, Feb. 29, 2012)

One thing that everyone should be able to agree on is that Otterness seems to have a lot of friends who can be rallied to keep bringing this issue up. Even the most despicable people have friends, however, and neither the artist’s personal qualities, family situation, and residence location, nor Clayton Patterson’s irrelevant babbling about art and his attempt to foist a guilt trip on those need the whole story in order to forgive, make serious issues go away.

There are many discrepancies and omissions in Patterson’s Talking Point piece. Patterson claims that Otterness “bought” the dog in question. Wikipedia says it was “adopted,” which is consistent with the description of the incident that was known in the days before Wikipedia. Animal abuse and fraud (against the adoption agency, which undoubtedly required a pledge to give the animal a good home) are crimes, and these were crimes that were never prosecuted. Why? Contrary to Patterson’s claim that the works are “innocent” and “inoffensive,” some of the work is so disturbing — the tied-up cat in Rockefeller Park, people being devoured in other installations — that many questions arise.

Patterson makes a good case that Otterness, who has already risen above his heinous crime and had a successful career, is over-represented in Lower Manhattan. The claim that Otterness’s business is being destroyed is irrelevant: Businesses come and go all the time, for whatever reasons (saturation of a market seems like a possible candidate here). The claim is also inaccurate, as his stuff is everywhere, much to the distress of those of us who would prefer to avoid it. New York is rife with artists deserving of attention, whose work would diversify the neighborhood art experience and bring new insights moving forward, rather than reminders of these past issues.

Forgiveness is not something that can be browbeaten into another person. Expecting forgiveness when a crime has been committed, when the legal penalty has not been paid, and when many questions have been unanswered, is disingenuous. Being sorry about murdering an innocent, defenseless animal for fun and profit is not the same as paying a penalty. Instead of harping on about forgiveness, Otterness should drop his attempts to foist his unsettling work on a neighborhood that has had enough of it, and allow us to move on.
JoAnne Chernow

Getting real about animals

To the Editor:
Re: “Sculptor dogged by a past act deserves forgiveness” (Talking Point, Feb. 29, 2012)

I live in Rochester, N.Y., where Tom Otterness has been the focus of some controversy. The Memorial Art Gallery here in town commissioned him to create a large outdoor sculpture.

Lots of animal lovers are upset about it. I have a different perspective.

I do animal rescue both as a job and as a hobby. I live with more rescued animals than I care to mention here. And I traveled to New Orleans to help save animals in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Nobody loves animals more than I do. And I’m here to say that I have no interest in Tom Otterness and the controversy that surrounds him. This is a non-issue to me. It’s true that he did a horrible act, but it happened once, 34 years ago, and he has apparently expressed remorse about it.

We have so many real, ongoing problems that it’s a shame to get distracted by non-issues. We have a huge problem with pet overpopulation, particularly with cats. Breeders and pet stores sell the products of puppy mills.

Then there’s animal agriculture: Around nine billion animals are slaughtered each year in the U.S. These animals, while they are being raised, are generally treated horribly and they also release enormous amounts of greenhouse gases that contribute more to global warming than the transportation industry. And the manure causes environmental devastation on a more local level.

These are all big problems that deserve our attention. Tom Otterness is inconsequential to me, and we should save our moral outrage for other, more important issues. I’m not in favor of (or opposed to) forgiving him. Forgiveness isn’t ours to give. His sins should be a matter for him, his conscience, and his deity.

The single best way to help animals is to go vegan.
Alex Chernavsky

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