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San Antonio Arts Director Stands By City Decision To Exclude Video From Centro De Artes Exhibit

This story has been updated.

A contentious video created by internationally acclaimed artist Xandra Ibarrawill not be included in the XicanX: New Visions exhibit at the City of San Antonio-owned Centro De Artes gallery. 

The San Antonio Arts Commission met Tuesday to discuss the video, and voted 7-2 to pass the decision to Debbie Racca-Sittre, the director of the Department of Arts and Culture. She declined an interview after the vote, but in a written statement said the city is open to connecting the curators to a private gallery.

“A video depicting graphic simulation of a sex act, no matter the oreintation of the artist, is not appropriate for general audiences,” she wrote. 

Back in Feburary, the Centro De Artes subcomittee voted to approve the video. On Tuesday, the arts commission — which advises the city's Department of Arts and Culture — did not vote on a recommendation for or against the video. Instead, a new motion was made to pass the decision to the city's department.

Suzy González, a guest curator for Centro De Artes, said she hadn’t spoken to Racca-Sittre since the vote and was unaware of her written statement before TPR reached her by phone late in the afternoon. 

Does the city have a case?

A San Antonio-based attorney and senior law professor at St. Mary’s University, Amy Kastely, spoke at the meeting on Tuesday. She says the city's legal standpoint is dicey at best.

"The city, unlike any private gallery, is subject to the First Amendment,” said Kastely. “And so the First Amendment restricts the city's ability to pick and choose among artistic expressions.”

She said in order for the city to remove a piece of work, it would have to meet all three tenants of obscenity under federal law:

  1. Appeal to prurient interests
  2. Depiction of genitalia in an offensive way
  3. Lack any artistic or cultural value

Kastely's opinion is that the video has clear artistic merit, so regardless as to how it stacks up on the first two requirements, they're rendered irrelevant by the third.
After the city pulled the video, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) sent a letter to Mayor Ron Nirenberg accusing the city of illegal censorship.

The letter also referenced extensive case law, including the landmark Miller v. California case. In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that work with “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” cannot be defined as obscene.

Nora Pelizzari is the communications director for the NCAC.

“In this case, what we're looking at is a government official putting their personal viewpoint about a piece of art ahead of the public's interest in having access to work with serious artistic value,” she said. “And that's precisely what the First Amendment is designed to protect against.”

González said Dos Mestizx , the community art collective behind the exhbit, has the ability to take legal action against the city.

Centro De Artes in downtown San Antonio.
Credit Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio
Centro De Artes in downtown San Antonio.

What’s happened so far?

Dos Mestizx initially proposed the exhibit in 2018. The Centro De Artes subcommittee approved it on Oct. 17, 2018.

More than a year later, on Dec. 1 2019, Dos Mestizx curators Suzy González and Michael Menchaca submitted still images from the video works of the exhibition. They made sure to include a still of what would likely be considered the most controversial element — the moment of the simulated orgasm.

The paperwork was approved by the city.

On Feb. 12 — the day before the exhibit’s opening reception — González and Menchaca suggested an audience advisory sign for Ibarra and another artist’s videos. 

The next morning, a city employee called them and suggested more prominent advisory signage, a content warning at the beginning of the video along with a curtain to obscure the work from the main area of the gallery. 

The curators agreed. González and Manchaca said they understand the space is family-friendly, which is why they initially suggested audience advisory signage and agreed to a curtain blocking the art from the main gallery. 

“Little did we know, we weren't done and there would be quite a deal of controversy over the fact that this video ended up on the desk of the city attorney Andy Segovia, who used the language that it was ‘obscene,’ claiming Texas penal codes,” González told TPR.

The Centro De Artes subcommittee held a special meeting in early February to discuss the exclusion of the work.

There, Department of Arts and Culture Director Debbie Racca-Sittre said she suggested removing the video for the evening of the opening reception because she hadn’t yet seen it. She said she then got a call from her supervisor and the city attorney Andy Segovia. 

“It was determined that the video was not appropriate for general audience viewing at Centro De Artes,” Racca-Sittre said. 

They cited Texas Penal Codes and community standards.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we made a curatorial decision — which the city has a right to do under its contract to determine what gets shown in the space,” Racca-Sittre said.

Deputy city attorney Ray Rodriguez also presented the city’s rationale at the Centro De Artes subcommittee special meeting in February. 

Rodriguez cited several factors underlying the city’s initial decision to exclude the video. 

“One of the things we looked at is what the curators were responsible for doing, what our options were — whether it was better to pull it and discuss it, or to leave it and see what happens if someone’s offended and views it and has an issue. I think those were the factors involved, but I’m reluctant to give you an official position because I don’t have it with me,” he said.

The subcommittee voted unanimously in favor of including the video in the exhibition during the meeting in late February.

With the most recent vote on Tuesday, the arts commission gave the final decision to the Department of Arts and Culture. 

City officials and members of the arts commission meet on March 10.
Credit Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio
City officials and members of the arts commission meet on March 10.

What do community members think?

Jack Finger represents the San Antonio Family Association, a group that promotes “family values.” He spoke against the video, calling it obscene. He said he doesn’t want his tax money supporting the display of the video which he characterized as “not art.”

Curator Suzy González said every taxpayer pays for something they don’t support.

“I think our tax money goes to a lot of things we don't want. It goes to war, goes to detention centers, prisons, in the masses, right? And, so, this is so minimal,” she said.

Graciela Sanchez is the director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and spoke at the arts commission meeting.

After the meeting, she told TPR this situation brings to mind the culture wars of the 20th century, and drew parallels between the exclusion of the video in 2020 and the city’s defunding of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in 1997.

“San Antonio wants to be a world class city? Then stand up and be a world class city,” she said. “Stop working out of fear, and work out of courage.”

She said she understands the conflicted position some city officials find themselves in.

What does this art do?

The video has been shown in the Centro Nacional de las Artes in Mexico City and the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C. More than two dozen scholars penned an open letter voicing support for the video, calling Ibarra’s art “some of the most relevant, exciting and rigorous (work) being produced in today’s contemporary art landscape.”

Suzy González and Michael Menchaca wanted to include Ibarra’s work because it expands the boundaries of Chicanx identity. The artist, Xandra Ibarra, declined TPR’s request for an interview. 

The XicanX: New Visions exhibit explores themes that evolved from the Chicano movements of the 1960s and 70s. 

“We also have some meditative artworks that speak to ideas of just ruminating and positive thoughts on issues of identity,” said Menchaca.

It examines those themes through an inclusive, contemporary lens. 

“And kind of in line with the themes and the ideas of the progression of the Chicano movement is the fact that we wanted to show representation of a broader range of artists,” González said. “It was really important for us to look at artists that you don't typically see in a show that is C-H-I-C-A-N-O art, right? Chicano art.”

Monique Roelofs is a professor of philosophy at Hampshire College, and a Karl Loewenstein fellow and visiting professor of political science at Amherst College. She teaches aesthetics and feminist, critical race, postcolonial and political theory. She is the author of “Arts of Address: Being Alive to Language and the World.”

“This work seems to be about spectacle, and it evokes a desire for a readable Latina, who stays in her role — her sexual role, her social role — conforming to male desire, conforming to heterosexual scripts,” Roelofs said. “It stages that desire, but immediately the work takes on this burlesque approach to those roles to sexual and gender roles and racial roles.” 

https://vimeo.com/171037339">Xandra Ibarra, Spictacle II: La Tortillera (2014) from https://vimeo.com/lachicaboom">La Chica Boom on Vimeo.

The burlesque approach begins when Ibarra begins to undress, and eventually reveals a strap-on hot sauce bottle, which Ibarra uses to simulate male masturbation. 

“The work is playing with the figure of man and playing with the figure of woman, and in the scene where the actress is simulating masturbation with the hot sauce bottle, at that moment as an audience member, you're not quite sure anymore whose sexuality you're seeing, you know, who is who,” Roelofs said. 

Behind Ibarra, a phantom-like audience claps and smiles throughout the performance. 

“The work very cleverly draws the audience in to throw back in their face the sexual and racial projections with which audiences approach the Latinx body,” Roelofs said. 

She said the audience’s gradually blurred relationship to the performance is the video’s most ingenious feature.

“This is the power of the video — or this is why I like it so much. At that moment, as an audience member, you don't quite know anymore who is who,” she said. “You even don't quite know anymore, who you are yourself. Where you are in relation to this spectacle, right? Man? Woman? Who are you? Queer? And maybe the city is afraid of entering that zone of disrupted boundaries — boundaries in which, as a culture, the U.S. has so much invested.”

Suzy González pushed back against the “community standards” rationale presented by the city.

“Community standards should not be defined by what is the cis, hetero, white, male — I wouldn't even say majority because it's not— but governing rule,” she said. 

She said the “community standards” referenced by city officials don’t include the entire community.

Dominic Anthony can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony.

Jack Morgan can be reached at Jack@TPR.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii.

Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony
Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii