Volume 19 Issue 36 | January 19 - 25, 2007


Artists, not cops know what is art

“Is calligraphy art? The N.Y.P.D. says no.” We suspect our headline last week raised the eyebrows of some of our readers, who like many Americans, place a high value on the Constitution and freedom of speech. We hope the mayor, the Police and Parks Departments also were shocked to read about the consequences of their ridiculous policy.

Our article was about Xu Zi, a calligrapher who sold her work in Battery Park up until last month, when she was shown a police order giving her two choices in effect: alter her art to meet police specifications or stop selling in the park.

Was her work obscene or likely to provoke violent reactions from reasonable people? No. It was the ancient art of calligraphy which Xu Zi began learning from her grandfather when she was a girl. She was asked to leave because a Parks Enforcement Patrol officer, applying a police order, determined that Xu Zi’s work was not art.

Had she drawn flowers or some other picture near the lettering, she could have stayed in the park, but she didn’t like the idea of the government dictating what kind of art she could do. Our Founding Fathers worried about that kind of stuff too, which is why they wrote the Bill of Rights.

The police order is a reaction to a Supreme Court decision granting First Amendment protections to vendors who sell art. We acknowledge the need for some vendor regulations and the enormous difficulty of setting up such a system while maintaining Constitutional guarantees. That challenge however, cannot be an excuse for allowing people with guns and badges to be the final arbiter for what constitutes art, because that poses a threat to one of our bedrock principles: free expression.

Vendors have created congestion problems in Soho and some parks and a free-for-all is not a solution. But clearly artists selling their own work should not have to submit their work to police to determine whether or not it’s art.

Our opinion on the art is as irrelevant as the N.Y.P.D.’s, but it is worth noting that one of the ironies of the policy is that a clear art form, traditional calligraphy, is banned while rudimentary flowers or other drawings of questionable quality with the lettering is allowed. Any rules allowing art will have to accept the good, bad and ugly as well as work that may not seem like art to all.

The police department’s Operations Order # 39 must be rescinded immediately and the city’s Police and Parks Departments should begin consulting with artists, community leaders, business owners, vendors and First Amendment attorneys to come up with a sensible set of rules. It would be a much smarter strategy for the city rather than waiting to lose another federal lawsuit.

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