UNDER A FLURRY OF NEGATIVE MEDIA attention, Seattle Art Museum abruptly dropped L.A. artist Mike Kelley from a planned exhibition last week. For fans of contemporary art, it was a great loss.

The Kelley installation slated to show at SAM, Pay for Your Pleasure (1988), is a complex work about the links between violence and creativity, which broadly examines the American attraction to repulsive people. But as presented in media reports, the installation was quickly reduced to one of its major elements: an artwork by a serial killer. Institutions who wish to show Pay for Your Pleasure are required to purchase a piece of art created by a serial killer or other serious criminal, which is then hung at the end of a hallway. The hallway is lined with banners bearing portraits of thinkers and artists, with quotes on the subject of creativity and transgression, from Piet Mondrian ("I think the destructive element is too much neglected in art") to Ralph Waldo Emerson ("Life too near paralyzes art").

The position of the killer's work then places it into this tradition, where the virtue of Gustave Courbet's "In our oh so civilized society it is necessary for me to lead the life of a savage" is called into doubt by, say, one of John Wayne Gacy's clown paintings. This is how it was seen at the Renaissance Society in Chicago. (The piece has also shown at the Whitney in New York, and the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art, which owns the work, without controversy.)

In Seattle, it seemed to fit nicely within 2000 and a Half, a broadly conceived late-millennial show planned by modern art curator Trevor Fairbrother for a six-week window next year in the museum's large second-floor temporary exhibitions space. Tara Reddy, Assistant Curator of Modern Art, was charged with the difficult task of finding a local artist/serious criminal for inclusion in the installation. Serial killer artists are a rare breed, and the search was arduous. Four months into Reddy's search, a website called APBonline ("The source for police and crime news, information, and entertainment") got wind of her inquiries. The resulting story, "Seattle Museum Seeks Creative Murderer," was, as you might imagine, not concerned with the nuances of Kelley's work, as can be judged by the article's second sentence, "The museum wants to make [a] heinous criminal the star of a gallery exhibit...." Other words and phrases drawn from the article quickly suggest its slant: "glorify," "entertainment," "community outrage," "Littleton," "crime shouldn't pay," "sick society." Many of the quotes were drawn from members of organizations with names like Parents of Murdered Children and Students Against Violence Everywhere, who questioned whether a "taxpayer-funded museum" should be allowed to show such work.

(I should point out that APBonline is not rabidly opposed to art in all its perverse forms. Last week found it posting a glowing write-up of North Carolina artist William Moore, who used guns from a police gun buy-back program to make a sculpture called Change of State: Turn Your Weapons into Plowshares.)

The article, which might not have been noticed otherwise, was promoted with a blitz of faxes to local news media, some of whom quickly picked up the story and ran with it. KOMO TV ran teasers for the story during its showing of the movie A Time to Kill, then pulled out all the stops on its nightly news program--with footage of Littleton and all. By the time KIRO's Friday morning talk show had an interview with a representative from Mothers Against Violence In America, the museum was ready to throw in the towel. Linda Williams, SAM's director of publicity, called the KIRO show to announce that the museum had canceled plans to exhibit Pay for Your Pleasure.

After that, aside from an article and editorial in that afternoon's Seattle Times ("glorifying killers and calling it art, satire, or social commentary is not breaking any ground"), and a self-congratulatory article in APBonline, the story was over. Officials at the museum are "not bowing to public pressure," according to Linda Williams. Curator Trevor Fairbrother and SAM Director Mimi Gardner Gates decided that "this kind of reaction was going to be endless and push everything out of context" (in Fairbrother's words), and that the piece would never get a fair shake in the charged environment surrounding it.

Of course, by pulling the plug on the exhibit, SAM has ensured that Pay for Your Pleasure will not be understood by Seattle audiences, as they will never get to see it. As with other artwork that has raised controversy--Robert Mapplethorpe's X Portfolio, Andres Serrano's Piss Christ--judgments were made by people who had never seen the piece and who were in no position to evaluate it. By letting pressure from uninformed outsiders determine the museum's programming, SAM has given these outsiders far too easy a victory, and let its audience down.

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