Sidewalk war over civil freedom

29 March 1998

One of the luxuries my wife and I normally indulge in on foreign trips is, in pleasant weather, to stroll and enjoy viewing the works of art by street artists - licenced or not.

In Bayswater, London, the artists have vending licences to sell their paintings, photographs, limited-edition prints, handicraft, secondhand books and sculptures and other works of art. In Argentina, last autumn Fauzah and I walked through little cobbled streets or "Caminito" in La Bocra-San Telmo, a suburb of Buenos Aires which is famous for artists, handicraft, brightly painted houses and cottages in all the primary colours, and open-air tango dancing in which visitors and tourists could participate.

We did not do the tango but we did buy three little paintings.

However, in New York, after more than 100 years of not needing permits to paint and sell their work on either side of the world famous Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met), since early this month, artists now have to possess permits.

New York city claims to be the capital of the world, among other reasons, because of the United Nations which ironically its mayor Rudolph Guiliani, loathes mainly because of traffic offenses by its diplomats. However, he needs the billions of dollars the nearly 200 diplomatic missions and the UN spend in the city yearly!

I dare say the Big Apple or the Big Bagel deserves the title for besides London - a close second - there is no other city I know which can rival New York in its diversity and fusion of races, cultures, languages and colours and at once also of racial division, cultural separation and isolation.

But, according to angry and protesting street artists, New York may soon end up as the Artist Persecution Capital of the world.

How come?

The United States is after all, so it asserts, the mother of all freedoms. Briefly, since the reelection of Giuliani with a massive majority two months ago, the New York City Parks Department, which controls the spaces or pavement on either side of the Met in the Upper East Side of Fifth Avenue, wants to reduce the number of artists - mainly immigrants including accomplished professionals, besides Americans.

It distresses me to see works of art being shoved into garbage bags and tossed into police patrol cars and trucks.

Zhang Wei, originally from Beijing, protested with a big placard which carried the words "New York's not Beijing" and vowed to fight for the freedom of the paint brushes. He and other artists are risking their art and their freedom to protest.

In good weather, every Saturday and Sunday, there can be anywhere between 24 to 50 artists. Each of them would have to pay US $ 25 (RM100) for a 30-day permit which would be surrendered at a month's end to give opportunity for other artists.

I live not far from this twice- a-week centre of street culture. Fauzah and I can tell you what a joy it is to go there for its festive atmosphere and hear a babel of languages. Here, you can have one's name written in Chinese by mainland Chinese calligraphers. I had my name done for US $10 (RM 40) on the day Deng Xio Peng died. He gave me a US $5 (RM 20) discount because he said I was friend! How? Because, I suppose, I greeted and thanked him in Mandarin, and we spoke about the significance of Deng's death, albeit in English. He must have been quite impressed about my knowledge of Chinese politics. I rather think that he agreed with my analysis that a more "realistic China" was in the making. I will never know the reason but I was pleasantly surprised.

The police have arrested and confiscated, destroyed or sold at a monthly police auction the works of artists who defied the law. One day I saw an artist arrested while colleagues and onlookers booed the police who bundled the male artist into a New York Police Department van.

The aggrieved artists claim that this war on street culture and civil freedom is intended to satisfy the powerful real state interests whose members financed the mayor's reelection campaign. These elite interests, many of whom live along Fifth Avenue view street artists as undesirable and want them ghettoized or eliminated.

The street artists won a lengthy court battle sometime ago when a panel of federal judges ruled that the First Amendment guarantees them the right to sell their work on the street. The artists have contended that arresting artists without vending licences amounted to censorship.

They met with opposition from City Hall, business people, residents and officials who argued that street artists are a public nuisance who block sidewalks and who rarely sell art with meaningful content.

The court ruling says that "both the court (artists lost the first round in the Manhattan Supreme Court) and the city demonstrate an unduly restricted view of the First Amendment and visual art itself.

"Paintings, photographs, prints and sculptures always communicate some idea or concept to those who view it, and as such are entitled to the First Amendment."

And what is the First Amendment? The Bill of Rights of the US constitution's First Amendment reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

Besides protecting the sale and distribution of written materials such as books and newspapers and the spoken word, freedom of speech has been interpreted by the United States Supreme Court to include communicative and purely artistic works such as music and visual art.

Governments often use licensing as a subtle means of repressing speech. Once a licence or permit for speech is required all that's needed to stop someone's speech is to deny or delay issuing the license or permit.

By requiring a permit the government gets to decide who can speak and when, if at all, they will be allowed to speak. This is the opposite of freedom of speech. For this reason, the First Amendment activities require no permit or license.