Artist Victor M. Montanez on MOCA’s Mural Controversy, Censorship and How Artists Help the Elite Censor Art & Culture


By Kevin Gosztola

A mural painted in Avondale, Chicago, that was later censored or whitewashed after a city official met with the owner of the building. by Corey Lewis

* The following article is inspired by Chris Hedges’ recent book “Death of the Liberal Class.” Hedges’ detailing of how art has been dismantled by the elites and how liberals have, in the past century, helped elites turn art and culture into something that is sterile and commercial–something used to suppress thought and prevent people from taking on injustice in their communities–should be considered further in a contemporary context. This will be the first in a long-running series of articles on art and culture in America.

In the first part of December, an Italian street artist known as Blu painted an anti-war mural on the wall of the Geffen Contemporary Art building in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. The museum commissioned the work but then whitewashed it because it wanted to be “sensitive” to the nearby Veterans Affairs hospital or the Japanese American war memorial nearby. The mural was a painting of coffins draped in dollar bills.

Similarly, Chicago artist Victor M. Montanez, a lifelong artist who specializes in creating art that can create a context for culture and empower the masses, has faced whitewashing or outright censorship of art in Chicago that he has produced or created through collaboration with other artists. I spoke to him about the whitewashing of art that carries messages, which might be offensive to those in power.

“It’s a systemic attack,” explains Montanez. “[It’s] an attack on the roots of creativity and self-expression. It’s no coincidence that all of the educational systems across the country facing financial problem, the first thing that they do is cut art and music from the curriculum. In Chicago, four hundred art & music teachers were let go just recently.”

He adds, the attacks are not just “on the surface of what we see when established artists get censored.” Artists are asked to censor before they get started, while they get started (otherwise they risk losing funding), when faced with opportunities for promotion, etc.

Montanez describes a recent and key incident of censorship, when he had young up-and-coming artists cooperate with him to paint a mural on a business owner’s building.

The artists made an agreement with the owner to “decorate his building in exchange for him displaying our art.” The owner “was not going to provide one cent” to the artists and in return he was “going to allow the artists to paint whatever they want.” The artists got together and painted a mural that said, “Power, unity, funk, hip-hop, peace,” and then in the top it had a banner. The banner said “No Human is Illegal.”

The completed mural, which up-and-coming artists came together to produce. by PPC Photography

The owner started “requesting that the statement about immigration be removed as well as any kind of reference to hip-hop be removed as well.” The artists “reminded him what the agreement was and also made it clear some of the artists -“especially the artists behind some of the portions he wanted removed–were out of town and that he wait to let the piece be what they want but we ourselves could whitewash the work. And then the next day he just whitewashed the whole mural.”

“We feel that was really an attack,” claims Montanez. “Folks don’t want us talking about immigrants as humans. And that disturbs some people, but it’s also clearly censorship.”

The building after the mural was censored or whitewashed. by PPC Photography

Montanez suggests this censorship reflects a “change” in art away from something that is an affirmation to or an aspiration of the community to something that more closely resembles “commercial trendy art.” It’s a move toward “commercialism” and art that “promotes drinking beer, drinking wine, dining out but it doesn’t really speak of community issues.” And, in many cases, Montanez adds, it can’t because the artists coming in and creating the art are not from the community so they cannot ever speak for the community.

For example, he tells the story of a decision by leaders in his neighborhood to paint a mural to cover up the ugliness of homeless people sleeping under a viaduct. Instead of creating a mural that made a statement about these people, people who society has marginalized and forgotten about, they chose to create an aesthetic mural. They chose to create art that could cover up and obscure the reality and provide people an escape from the ugliness of life. An artist agreed to work in the service of power to help power take the community’s eyes off the despair going on in that part of their neighborhood.

Montanez reflects on the way that capitalism has really become toxic to the power of art in communities:

What artists have to realize as artists, musicians, educators is that we play a critical role in the economy. What the capitalists listen to is money. Money is the only thing that talks to them and it’s the only thing that talks to our elected officials and to our electoral politicians. And so, they say we only vote every two or every four years. And we come to believe that that’s the way to bring about change. But the reality is that we vote every day, several times a day -where we shop, where we eat, where we go out. In fact, a lot of these businesses would be nowhere if it wasn’t for artists holding events, holding open-mics, holding just music shows. All of this is what stimulates these communities and really are displacing the masses. So, artists have to understand the role that we play. We’re accomplices to our people’s displacement and the suppression of our own voice. We have to realize — The answer I see is we need to organize a mass boycott, locally and nationally, to make sure that the voice of the artist.

He put all of this in the context of the larger problem of money in society. Elected officials promise reform and renege and choose to basically help pharmaceuticals or bankers or anybody else invested in the status quo. Locally, aldermen or city council members respond to developers, their biggest contributors. They use art to advance gentrification of neighborhoods. They neutralize the power of art to create resistance and use it against people. They also disarm communities who have used power to fuel social movements or build culture and force people “into one channel of a voice”-electoral politics.

Liberals have played a key role in this. They have been complicit. They have allowed art to be neutered and turned into something that now typically promotes commercialism or escapism.

In Los Angeles, the mural was clearly censored yet the response by artists was mixed. Artists claim that the museum that commissioned the anti-war mural engaged in poor planning. They didn’t ask to see a representation of what would be painted prior to the artist’s painting of the mural. (To view the mural and its whitewashing, see these photos posted on Unurth.)

Mat Gleason, writer for the Coagula Art Journal, while simultaneously defending art that was recently censored at by the Smithsonian Institution, wrote:

“Some street art fans are crying about the First Amendment violations in this whitewashing but are not considering two things. Do MOCA’s curators have a First Amendment right to make the best show possible? Is curating not an artistic process? If a movie director decides that scene in a film detracts from the overall picture and he cuts it, is he censoring the actors who lose screen time as a result? A ratings board or government agency demanding that movie have a scene cut is censorship. The decision to get rid of an artwork that would detract from the overall show is a curatorial decision. Not only is the whitewashing at MOCA not censorship, it is both a brave move to make a show better in the face of controversy as well as to be sensitive on behalf of the local community, something that a shock-and titillation-centric art world is not really known for.”

Gleason believed the move to censor the anti-war mural indicated “empathy for the population of the Little Tokyo community and how they might interpret a commentary on the sacrifice of their late bothers and fathers.” Gleason, however, should understand that his willingness to encourage artists to self-censor when they have a message to present is just another indication of how artists have conditioned themselves to help powerful interests in America emasculate art. By not defending this art, by subverting freedom of speech in America with an overture to self-censorship, he is encouraging museum owners to replace art that takes on society with abstract and sterile art that does not speak to people but makes people think they are not intellectual enough to understand the meaning of the art they are viewing.

Each artist, according to Montanez, has a decision to make:

[An artist] has to decide if they’re going to pursue their voice or if they’re going to be a vehicle for the highest bidder. If the objective of an artist is simply to make a living and to sell art, then they are more of a craftsman. They are not a true artist. A true artist speaks their voice, their inner voice, and projects that through their art, through their discipline.


For the record, Blu has spoken with some veterans who “liked” the mural and found it “truthful.”

To Montanez, people with mindsets like Gleason are craftsmen. People who buy into the idea of art as a way of just making money are selling themselves short. Artists, Montanez added, if art is just about money:

We’ve sold ourselves basically to be at the whim of just currency rather than to actually pursue true art. If you are going to pursue art, you got to pursue truth. And truth is ugly. So, if you just call yourself an artist that’s out for aesthetic, well you might as well paint a lie because the truth tells us that the world is not pretty right now. We’re not sitting on a pretty situation. And, if we want to speak about life on this planet, that truth is going to be ugly and going to hurt people. And that’s that people don’t want to be uncomfortable and artists don’t want to be left on the outside.


Montanez made the decision a long time ago to not worry about acceptance from others. He admits it’s not easy and something that one has to re-commit to on a daily basis. He explains that every day he has to answer this question again, “Should I shut up and not say anything and remain in the favor of the alderman and the elite people of the community, of the city or of the art world? Or am I going to pursue justice and use my talents and the skills that I’ve developed over a lifetime to speak about that?” Some artists do not answer that question, ever. They should be regarded as craftsmen or technicians, not artists.

There need to be more artists taking up positions of leadership in communities, Montanez says. He adds, “What’s discouraging is we’re not getting enough people into these institutions. We’re not infiltrating them enough to change the course of their policies, to change their narrow superficial view of art being about aesthetics.”

Young artists painting the mural that was later whitewashed. by PPC Photography

 silver lining does exist. Montanez explains, “If the status quo is worried about certain artists or certain messages, then we’re doing something right. So that’s what’s encouraging. You see so many artists being attacked because they will not be silenced.”

He’s also heartened by the fact that youth are making statements like, “No Human is Illegal” in artwork in a way that women stood up and declared all women have the right to vote, in the way that people stood up and said slavery is wrong.

A young artist painting a mural, which makes a statement about immigration and culture by PPC Photography

“It’s very encouraging that in these times when immigrants have been demonized as terrorists and everything that’s wrong with the economy again that there’s young kids that see through that bullshit and they know no human is illegal and all humans are created equal and they can translate that,” concludes Montanez.

“I think that sooner or later expression is gonna surface. Either they support us or even if they don’t support us the voices of true artists are going to be seen.”


Gozstola, Kevin. “OpEdNews – Article: Artist Victor M. Montanez on MOCA’s Mural Controversy, Censorship and How Artists Help the Elite Censor Art & Culture.” Progressive, Liberal United States and International News, Opinion, Op-Eds and Politics. 21 Dec. 2010. Web. 21 Dec. 2010.

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2 comments on “Artist Victor M. Montanez on MOCA’s Mural Controversy, Censorship and How Artists Help the Elite Censor Art & Culture
  1. […] Artist Victor M. Montanez on MOCA’s Mural Controversy, Censorship and How Artists Help the Elite C… […]

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