- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 29, 2001

As legend has it, California is an open-minded, swinging place where anything goes and anybody, particularly among politicians, is fair game for satirists. The California State Fair has exploded that notion by banning a work of art that satirizes William Jefferson Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States - a tough job that one artist somehow managed to pull off.
Peter Langenbach, a middle school art teacher in the Bay Area, used recycled materials to depict Bill Clinton lying in repose in a bathtub, accompanied by Monica Lewinsky, who once toiled as an intern in the White House. She was apparently a hard worker who performed tasks above and below the call of duty for her boss, the president of the United States. The sculpture is titled "Loose Lips Sink Ships," and attempts to capture one of those special presidential moments.
Mr. Langenbach entered "Loose Lips" at the Napa County Fair, in sophisticated, upscale wine country, and came away with a best-in-show award, and coverage in a local paper. The sculpture proved a huge hit. Encouraged, the artist moved up the food chain to the State Fair, a major annual event in the capital. At first it went well.
Mr. Langenbach won the State Fair's first place award for three-dimensional sculptures, but a week before the State Fair kicked off, officials banned the sculpture, apparently made without any government funding.
Brian May, an assistant general manager, explained to reporters that "the exhibit could be offensive to some people and inappropriate for young children." No fewer than five representatives of the State Fair ruled "Loose Lips" unfit for exhibition, particularly because of "the location of Monica Lewinsky to the overall position of the president." That Monica, causing trouble again, but the banning is good for more than a laugh.
During the actual events of the recent presidency, many complained it was difficult to explain them to students. Now art imitates life in a truly educational exhibit, made of recycled material to boot. This sculpture shows how virtually anyone, even someone with the mindset of an 18-year-old, can become president. As for the material being "offensive," it hardly holds a monopoly.
As the sculptor pointed out, "people were offended by the situation the actual event." So it makes perfect sense that a work of art based on the event would be offensive. To go outside in America is to be offended. The State Fair itself, with its noise, traffic and drunks, is offensive to many people. So are most of the channels on the local cable outlet. So are songs that win Grammy awards, and films that win Oscars. America itself is offensive to groups like the Taliban.
Whenever a banning like this happens, or anyone objects to a publicly-funded work satirizing Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary, the chattering classes rush to say that the purpose of art is to shock us, make us think and so on. But one notices a double standard. Had the California State Fair banned an award-winning satirical work about Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, howls of "censorship" would have rang out from coast to coast.
As it happened, the "art community" in Sacramento made not a peep and the media passed on the story, a natural for television. As for the sculptor, he is not pressing the case. That is a mistake.
Mr. Langenbach should apply for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and take "Loose Lips Sink Ships" on a national tour. That done, he can donate the award-winning work to the Smithsonian.

K. Lloyd Billingsley writes about California politics from Sacramento.


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