Harold Washington was Chicago's first black mayor. His term, though progressive (he was the first mayor who was truly successful in breaking the Daley machine), also saw racial tensions, such as the council wars, where white aldermen blocked many of his policies. Regardless of the council's opinion of him, however, the people of Chicago reelected him. Unfortunately, Mayor Washington died in 1987 of a heart attack before his second term could begin.
Before the Mayor's death, there had been rumors that he was gay. These fueled another rumor: that the mayor was found to be wearing women's undergarments under his suit upon his arrival at the hospital after his fatal heart attack. In 1988, David Nelson, a graduating senior in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's undergraduate program, decided to take this rumor and use it in his artwork. He painted a poorly executed picture of the mayor, visibly overweight, wearing nothing but a bra, panties, lace stockings, and garter belt. He titled this painting Mirth & Girth, which was also happened to be the name of a gym for gay men.
11 May 1988
SAIC had a yearly exhibition known as the Traveling Fellowship Competition, which was a show featuring the work of seniors. It had no pre-screening, and was open only to students and staff of the School. Nelson was randomly chosen to display his paintings on a wall next to the main entrance, making them very visible. Though he was exhibiting five paintings, one drew everyone's attention: Mirth & Girth. Within an hour, staff had noticed the painting, and notified the School administration. Half and hour after that, aldermen and the media had been contacted, with Chicago Defender staff members already in the School President's office. By the afternoon, a crowd had gathered outside the entrance, and a shouting match between the mostly white students and the mostly black community members ensued.
Tony Jones, the President of the School, had already begun to get a group of staff members together, in an attempt to figure out what the school should do. However, their decision was made for them after eleven black aldermen entered the exhibition, took the painting off the wall, and brought it with them into the President's office. There, they threatened to burn the painting, first inside the office and then on the lawn, before police officers decided to "arrest" the painting and took it from the building. Students, meanwhile, debated the issues of civil liberties and racisim associated with the situation, and drafted a group statement that said, in part, that the painting represented only Nelson's views, but that it should have stayed in the museum for First Amendment reasons.
If all of this wasn't enough, the School was told that the Illinois Black Caucus was planning on submitting a bill that would end all funding for both the School and the Art Institute itself, and demanded that Tony Jones resign. The museum sent a group of administrators, along with a lawyer and a representative of the student union to Springfield by plane.
12 May 1988
There were also meetings going on in Chicago. School administrators met with someone they thought was David Nelson, and they asked him to voluntarily remove the painting. He decided to wait until the following day to decide. In a second meeting, the President of the Board, Marshal Field V, along with the President and Vice-President of the School, lawyers, and other administrators, met with Chicago's Mayor Sawyer, members of his administration, and eleven aldermen. After tense discussions, this group decided that the School would apologize, not display the painting in the future, and attempt to improve diversity in the school. It was also at this meeting that the school learned that it had not been Nelson they had met with, but an impostor. Nelson, never ended up being reached during the entire ordeal.
The Springfield meeting was slightly different. First, there were some misconceptions on the part of the Illinois legislators. They had thought that the painting was hanging in the Museum itself, and that it had been on public view for weeks without comment or criticism from School students and staff. The School clarified these points, and replied to an accusation that it was not removed because Harold Washington was black, insisting that they would never have removed a painting, regardless of its subject. In fact, Nelson had earlier painted the school President, Tony Jones, in a compromising position, and that painting had been allowed to hang on the school's walls.
In the end, the Springfield meeting went well. The administrators and the Black Caucus agreed that they needed to work together, when possible, and that the school would need to diversify. This meeting saw none of the shouting and accusations that the City Hall meeting had experienced. The end result was that while the Springfield contingent felt positive about the situation, thinking that an understanding had been reached, the Chicago group was anxious and upset.
At the same time, despite the meetings, outside criticism continued. Operation PUSH leader Rev. Willie Barrow, went on national television with a group of black ministers, condemning racism at the school, and demanding that all future paintings be reviewed and that there be sanctions against the museum.
13 and 14 May 1988
The administration had to decide what to do, since graduation was scheduled for 14 May. Rev. Barrow had called for 1000 people to march on the Museum, while the School was expecting 1000 attendees at graduation. These two groups would have arrived at the same time, and the administrators were afraid of clashes breaking out. People were receiving death threats, and a car bomb had been set off in front of the school. The school decided to call for additional police protection. On the day of the graduation officers surrounded the school, undercover officers1 were interspersed throughout the audience at graduation. In the end, the ceremony went off without any problems.
The painting never was displayed again. It was, however, damaged after the ordeal. After Alderwoman Dorothy Tillman and Alderman Alan Streeter took the painting off the wall, the painting suffered a five-inch gash in the corner. During its "arrest" and "incarceration", it suffered additional damage, eventually ending up with several gashes and holes.
Nelson and the ACLU sued the city for violation of his First Amendment rights. The two aldermen who had taken the painting down, Streeter and Tillman, claimed administrative immunity, and the case was sent to a magistrate. At this preliminary trial, the aldermen were told that as members of the City Council, they had no right to enter a private show and remove the painting. On appeal, they claimed they were acting as private citizens, and so the constitutional complaint did not apply to them. The judge responded by stating that their previous claim of administrative immunity was therefore invalid (since private citizens are not afforded government protections), and thus the case was sent back to the district court for trial. Nelson was eventually awarded damages into the millions of dollars.
Many rallying in defense of the aldermen cited the Steve Cokely affair as a defense for their actions. Mayor Eugene Sawyer, who took over after Mayor Washington's death, had an aide, Steve Cokely. Cokely, when speaking at several Nation of Islam lectures, made anti-Semetic remarks. These went from run-of-the-mill accusations to such things as a global conspiracy and a charge that Jewish doctors were infecting black babies with AIDS. Many called for Cokely's dismissal, but it took Sawyer a week to fire him, to the anger of the Jewish community. A few in the black community felt that Cokely was, at least in part, right, and many were unhappy with his firing. Because Mirth & Girth was displayed soon after this event, some thought Nelson's painting was done in retaliation for Cokely's remarks, though this was incorrect, as Nelson was not Jewish. The argument against Nelson stated that if Cokely wasn't protected by the First Amendment, then Nelson shouldn't be either. In addition, the Illinois Black Caucus used Cokely's firing to demand the dismissal of the School President, Tony Jones. However, nothing came of this.
Another interpretation of Nelson's actions, and one that he himself backs up, is one of iconoclasm. Nelson was angry at a poster titled Worry ye not, which depicted Jesus side by side with the angel Harold Washington, watching over Chicago. Nelson, in interviews, claimed that putting Mayor Washington next to Jesus was sacrilegious, and that he felt obligated to bring the Mayor down. At the same time, he used this as an opportunity to make a homophobic statement, naming the painting after a gay men's weight-loss club. Nelson also added other details to the painting that made it clear his intent to, at the very least, defile the Mayor, and at the worst, purposely anger the community. The Mayor was depicted as being overweight; he had died of a heart attack. He was also shown holding a pencil in his hand; the Mayor's press secretary, Alton Miller, had though Washington was bending over to pick up a pencil when he was in fact doubled-over in pain. These and other details prompted New York Times writer Michael Brenson to call the painting "savage."
1 My mom was a senior in graduate school at SAIC when this fiasco occurred. She too was to graduate at the 14 May ceremony. She remembers the undercover officers in the audience quite well. They did a very good job spreading themselves throughout the room, but they had one problem: they were all in three-piece suits. Apparently, no one had told them that art students don't wear suits. The end result was that one could stand up, glance around, and be able to point out each and every "undercover" officer in the room.