Signs from God: drawing the line between church and state | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Signs from God: drawing the line between church and state 

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Wayne Polak had no idea his depiction of the stations of the cross would raise such a ruckus.

His work consists of 14 street signs, arranged along the sidewalk outside a Gold Coast church, in which Christ, as Sun-Times reporter Andrew Herrmann wrote, is depicted as a "dot-headed, fingerless, footless universal man" making his "final journey from Pilate's condemnation to crucifixion to entombment."

It was conceived as a way to highlight universal themes while offending no one, not even the most rigid religious fundamentalist. "Polak said he was not "shooting for the approval of the art crowd,"' Herrmann wrote. "He wants typical Christians to gaze upon his work and meditate in its simplicity."

But someone was offended. An association of freethinkers complained that Polak's signs violated the separation of church and state because they were stationed along the public sidewalk outside Saint James Episcopal Cathedral, 65 E. Huron. On March 13 city work crews yanked Polak's signs from the sidewalk on the grounds that the church had no permit to put them there. It was the first time city officials had confiscated a work of art since the summer of 1988, when several aldermen stormed the Art Institute to take down a painting that depicted the late Mayor Harold Washington wearing a woman's panties.

"This is so bizarre and ironic because I don't consider myself a religious artist--I don't even go to church anymore," says Polak. "I certainly never expected my work to generate opposition, particularly by atheists. Everyone's putting emphasis on the religious aspect of the piece and they're overlooking its artistic merit. Once you have a religious theme does that mean it's no longer artistic? If it's religious can it be art?"

The work wasn't even intended to be displayed outside a church, says Polak. It was first displayed last year at the Randolph Street Gallery.

"It's intended as a reflection of how religion, in this case Christianity, plays a part in our life," says Polak. "I didn't want to have it set in iconographic details. I wanted to take race out of it. By putting it [the final journey] on street signs I wanted to show a view of religion interwoven in our life."

Nathan Mason, a parishioner at Saint James, saw the work at the Randolph Street Gallery and decided it would be ideal for his church. "It's so simple and so refined," says Mason, who's an art curator. "There are no grotesque details and there's no mockery."

With approval from the church's leaders, Mason and Polak decided to mount the signs on yellow poles that would run along the sidewalk outside the church. "You're bringing the subject, Christ's procession, right back to the street, where it happens," says Mason. "It's perfect."

The signs went up on Sunday, February 26. "No one complained," says Mason. "It was just the opposite--they resonated with people. Middle-class people who might be the type to protest against art really liked it. A woman came in from the suburbs to see it."

Of course Polak's work was not likely to inflame or even challenge middle-American sensibilities. It's not mocking or inflammatory or controversial, as was, say, Andres Serrano's controversial photograph of a crucifix in a glass of urine. Serrano told the New York Times that his photograph, which caused a storm of outrage among fundamentalists and their political allies, was intended to show the "duality or contradiction between abstraction and representation, between transforming that little cross into this monumental and mysterious-looking object and then making you reconsider it in another context when you read the label [that says it's in urine]." Polak's work has no such irony.

The signs remained outside the church without protest until March 3, when the Tribune ran an article with pictures about them.

"After the Tribune story we got a call from a city official who wanted to know if we had a permit for the signs," says Mason. "We didn't; we had neglected to investigate the necessity of getting a permit. The official said it could be an issue because the signs blocked the public right-of-way. That's ridiculous. They were at the edge of the sidewalk and in no one's way."

The city sent over two inspectors. "They took some photos and told us the signs were on public property," says Mason. "They made it clear nothing would happen right away. I was on the phone all day with city officials and the word I got is that the atheists initiated this."

Actually, the protests came from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc., which is based in Madison, Wisconsin. "The press tends to call us atheists but that isn't accurate," says Anne Nicol Gaylor, the foundation's president. "We are freethinkers, which is a lovely old word used for unbelievers, atheists, agnostics, skeptics, rationalists, and secularists."

A foundation member had seen the Tribune article and notified Gaylor. "You could see as plain as day by looking at the picture in the paper that the signs were on public property," says Gaylor. "It's a blatant violation of separation between church and state."

On March 6 Gaylor wrote a letter to the Reverend Canon Janet Campbell, one of Saint James's pastors. "Naturally, we have no problem whatsoever with religious displays on private property, but we do object most adamantly to their display on public property, since it denotes public endorsement and public accommodation," Gaylor wrote.

Gaylor went on to request that the church remove the signs from the sidewalk and put them on their property.

"They promote Christianity," says Gaylor. "Religious groups are always trying to infringe on public property. People who want to entangle church and state should live in a country in which the two are intertwined. They are not good citizens."

Polak and Mason say the signs violate no constitutional prohibitions because they make no attempt to proselytize. "It's near a church, but it's not encouraging someone to follow a certain religion," says Mason. "Does a religious content obviate artistic merit? Can you not explore religious themes anymore? If that's so, should the Art Institute take down its copy of El Greco's Assumption because it has a religious theme and it's hanging in a museum that's on public land and which receives public funds? What about the religious Native American artifacts and all the vestments and liturgical implements on display in the Art Institute? Is it a case where, as Andre Malraux said, if you put something in a museum it's dead, but if you put them near a church it's living? Are they saying we can't have those Easter processions in Pilsen where Christ is carried through the public streets? It gets ridiculous after a while."

Such arguments, Gaylor contends, are spurious. "There's a big distinction between having crosses outside a church on a public sidewalk and a painting with a religious theme in a museum," she says. "These signs belong to the church, so let them put them on their tax-exempt property. They will invent any argument, no matter how flimsy or illogical, to justify their point of view. They can put those signs on their property--isn't that enough? Why do they have to put their religion everywhere? These people are on a mission; they want to convert the world."

And what about public reenactments of Christ's final journey--are you against those?

"If someone uses the parks or streets for a onetime event, that's one thing," Gaylor says. "It's different than placing a creche on public property from Thanksgiving to January."

These larger philosophical arguments were lost on city officials, whose main concern was to eliminate any kind of noisy crisis that might disrupt Mayor Daley's ponderously steady procession toward reelection. "[A city official] told us that the city was going to be sued," says Mason. "And they didn't want that."

On Friday, March 10, the city ordered the church to move the signs off the sidewalk. Mason asked for a brief delay, arguing that the church didn't have the proper equipment to unbolt the signposts from the sidewalk. But on Monday, March 13, a city work crew came and hauled the signs away.

"It was the fastest I've ever seen the city respond," says Mason. "I guess if we want them to fix our streets we should paint crosses on our potholes."

City officials are reluctant to discuss the matter. The Department of Cultural Affairs, which could be expected to have something to say about art and freedom of expression, directed all questions to the other city officials, who knew nothing about the dispute. "I guess the city just wants this to go away," Mason says.

The city returned the signs to the church, which has erected them on its property.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Peter Barreras.

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