When Robert Sherer read about the connection between the Council of Conservative Citizens and Dylann Roof, the man who murdered nine parishioners in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, he was not surprised. The Atlanta-based visual artist is still scarred by his own encounter with the white supremacist group almost twenty years ago when the CCC attacked an exhibition of Sherer’s paintings at the Barnwell County Museum in Barnwell, S.C.
This was at the height of the “culture wars” when conservatives and liberals alike felt that their moral ideals and way of life were under attack. A favorite target of the religious right was art in local and public institutions that, to their mind, represented an affront to the very moral foundations of the country.
Sherer’s paintings of male nudes, often in poses akin to Renaissance and classical depictions of female nudes, drew CCC protests, and the museum board padlocked the doors to the exhibit and asked curator Jennings Rountree to take down the work, claiming he misrepresented it when the exhibition was presented to the board. Rountree refused and resigned.
With the help of the South Carolina ACLU, Sherer and Rountree sued the museum. The case, which took 13 months, was settled out of court. As part of the settlement, the show was reinstalled in its original venue for five days. The CCC responded with a smear campaign. Opposition to the exhibition became a personal attack on Sherer’s “moral character,” complete with vitriolic harassment and death threats. Flyers posted throughout Barnwell called on citizens to “Lock up Your Children,” and labeled him the “Sodomite Artist.”
Violence simmered and occasionally erupted. The CCC staged a protest rally, replete with thugs wielding guns, sticks and boards, in the museum’s parking lot during the opening reception to frighten away supporters of the exhibition. Several people were hurt. When Sherer and friends returned to pick up the work, obscenity-shouting young men sporting paramilitary attire and Confederate flag T-shirts tried to make their truck lose control. Back in Atlanta, Sherer received death threats and had to quit his job.
“It was 1996, but it felt like something that might have happened to the Freedom Riders during the 1960s,” Sherer said. “People need to know that long before poisoning the mind of the Charleston church shooter, this organization has been actively using hate mongering and fear tactics to suit its political aims.”
ArtsATL recently spoke with Sherer about the experience and its aftermath.
ArtsATL: How did the CCC work?
Robert Sherer: One of their favorite tactics was to repeatedly associate my name with pedophilia. This was particularly strange considering that all of the paintings in the exhibition depicted adult males. The organization not only put up those little posters around town, they relentlessly attacked me and my character on talk radio shows. They also demonized me in editorials to the newspapers in the region.
I was not allowed to respond to any of their attacks because the ACLU was adamant that the censorship case would play itself out in the media and would largely be won in the court of public opinion.
ArtsATL: How did the experience affect you?
Sherer: After the Barnwell censorship and subsequent threats I stopped painting male nudes altogether, and for several reasons. It bothered me that people got hurt indirectly as a result of my work. Having been officially censored four times at that point, I was tired of the hassles of the process.
Contrary to popular belief, being censored is not glamorous. It is time-consuming, financially draining and, worst of all, psychologically damaging. It undermines an artist’s drive because it makes him hyper-focused on potential outcomes of the product rather than the creative process.
Every time I picked up a paintbrush there was this self-censoring nagging question in my head, “Why create this work of art that might get me into trouble again?” For several years I was under the spell of this damaging second guessing until I realized that the censors were winning the battle if I self-censored.
ArtsATL: Does the experience inform your present work in any way?
Sherer: The work I have created since then, primarily the wood burnings called the American Pyrography series, is a reaction to my censorship battles because the series aims to subvert Americana. It is my intention to show people that homosexuals are not dangerous aliens from another planet but rather are our friends and family. That is why many of the works in the series look like Norman Rockwell with a gay twist.
ArtsATL: Despite a drop in members among hate groups such as the CCC, its ability to spread its message has increased. Can art effectively examine, critique and counter such groups?
Sherer: Sometimes art seems immensely powerful to me, other times utterly impotent. I could never have imagined that the works from my graduate school thesis would have caused so many problems and controversy.
It certainly has the ability to offer a social criticism, but it doesn’t do much good if it is only seen by one’s comrades, the proverbial preaching to the choir.
Those male nudes would probably not have been censored if I had only exhibited them in gay urban venues, but then what good is that? I think it is very important for artists to exhibit their work outside the comfortable sophisticated culture domes.
One of the great objectives of art is to educate. Because what I want to say as an artist is not something that ignorant people want to hear, it makes it all the more important that I expose them to it.