Back in June, sculptor Anish Kapoor installed the sculpture Dirty Corner on the grounds of the famous palace there.  Kapoor, who can’t seem to avoid public controversy over his work, saw the sculpture first become the object of debate with regard to its form itself, specifically, the suggestion that the shape of the large work was anatomical.  Kapoor coyly fostered speculations about what it was meant to represent, but ultimately demurred that his “work has multiple interpretive possibilities.”  With recent vandalism and a court order that he remove the graffiti, however, the story has turned into one more about free expression and compelled speech.  So far, it does not have a happy ending.

The story might have ended with the initial furor about titillation as a debate about decency, expression, and obscenity, but that was not to be.  At least three times over the summer, the sculpture was vandalized with spray-painted phrases such as “SS blood sacrifice,” “Queen sacrificed, twice insulted,” “the second RAPE of the nation by DEVIANT JEWISH activism” and “Christ is king in Versailles,” written in French.  It was quite shocking.  French Prime Minister François Hollande condemned the vandalism as “hateful and anti-Semitic,” and French Minister of Culture Fleur Pellerin said that it as “no more or less an act which reveals a fascist vision of art.”

Kapoor at that point made an interesting choice.  After the first act of vandalism was removed, Kapoor declared that he would leave the remainder in place.  I am convinced that nothing should be removed from these slurs, from these words which belong to anti-Semitism that we’d rather forget,” he said.  “From now on, in the name of our universal principles, these abominable words will become part of my work, they will overlay it and stigmatize it.”  Kapoor explicitly linked his decision to the refugee crisis in Europe, criticizing France for its response to that situation.

That too, however, was not the end of the story.  After Kapoor stated his intention to leave the artwork as is, a local politician named Fabien Bouglé filed a complaint with the public prosecutor against Kapoor and Catherine Pégard, president of the Palace of Versailles, alleging that the defendants were complicit in the anti-Semitic statements by failing to remove them.

This week, to the surprise of most, the French court ordered the graffiti removed.  Kapoor was incensed, saying to The Art Newspaper:

From my perspective, this [the court decision] is a triumph for the racists. The right thing is to carry on. . . .  We will start working on Monday [21 September]; this will be an act of transformation which turns the nastiness into something else. I want something active, not reactive.

Shortly after making the statement, The Art Newspaper updated its report to say that black sheets had been placed over the sculpture, covering it entirely. Kapoor is British, but as an American lawyer the story certainly stands out in contrast to what one would expect under U.S. First Amendment law (which of course has no application here, this is purely a thought exercise).  But like our ruminations on cultural property laws, it’s a reminder that even in an interconnected world things can be very different.

The reason the story jumps out is as an issue of compelled and restricted speech.  Under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the government cannot choose among expressive messages.  Further, under the doctrine of prior restrain, a court will be extremely leery of silencing any kind of speech—but particularly political speech—unless compelling reasons of safety or law (e.g., copyright) justify otherwise.  Further, once the government creates a public forum, it cannot select which expression to permit based on its content.  That is why American Nazis and Ku Klux Klan rallies are permitted so long as they are peaceful (and why, despite what you may have heard, the Confederate Flag is in no way illegal or prohibited, it simply no longer flies at the South Carolina State House).

The suggestion that Kapoor was adopting the anti-Semitic graffiti for its content is ridiculous, of course, but that is entirely beside the point from the standpoint of free speech.  Kapoor was free to make his initial expressive work.  Some people found it offensive.  Kapoor was not permitted to take an expressive stance on a development outside his control.  His intention was to leave the juxtaposition, a contrast daring the viewer to come to terms with what had happened.  The court order said otherwise, which in my view is a form of compelled speech, without question.  His response, if accurately reported, is pitch perfect short of civil disobedience: the black sheets show that the absence of truly free expression is the absence of expression.  Yahoo! has since reported that the entire sculpture is being covered in gold leaf.

The Kapoor story reminds me again of an episode in my own experience.  In the fall of 1993 artist David Hammonds was an artist in residence and completed an installation of his Yardbird Suite at the Williams College Museum of Art, where was then an undergraduate (and a work-study security guard to boot).  At the same time, he installed a work entitled Rock Fan on the main gathering point on campus, near the freshman quad and the dining hall.  Rock Fan, which consisted of a large boulder with electric fans affixed all over it, elicited the usual sniggering about “what does it mean?” and a surprising amount of anger, á la Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc (as an aside, the rage that public art provokes is a source of enduring fascination).

Click here to view image.

(Rock Fan in happier days.  Your author as a confused undergraduate happily not pictured)

After several weeks however, in the days before the annual Homecoming football game against Amherst College, something more serious happened.  Vandals doused the entire sculpture in purple paint.  Everyone was quick to point fingers; purple being the color of both Williams and Amherst, convenient scapegoats and plausible deniability abounded.  It was, to put it mildly, terribly embarrassing for both esteemed liberal arts institutions.

What reminds me of it now, however, is not just the vandalism, it was Hammonds’s response.  That is to say, he chose to leave it as is.  Had there been any effort to compel him to do otherwise, the outcry would have been enormous.