WHY WE SHAMED CLAY YARBOROUGH

December 10, 2014
by
4 mins read

As you might have read by now — either from the blog I posted Thursday evening or the Times-Union story that regurgitated it the next day — City Councilman Robin Lumb, likely the next chairman of the Duval County Republican Party, is not happy with the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville. In case you missed it: Last Thursday, Lumb sent a stern email to the Cultural Council’s board members, chiding them for an email the organization had sent out that Monday to rally support for the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, and against its recent nemesis, Council President Clay Yarborough, who famously labeled a picture of a naked pregnant lady in MOCA’s Project Atrium exhibit pornographic and demanded that Mayor Alvin Brown defund the museum unless it was removed. (Brown did not.)

Most troubling to Lumb, however, was this: The email linked to a story I’d written on folioweekly.com that “made a number of disparaging remarks about Councilman Yarborough.” (True.) This was, in Lumb’s view, beyond the pale, and if the Cultural Council “continues to display such an egregious lack of judgment and common sense,” he might stop supporting funding for the arts, which he’d done reluctantly, as an “act of political comity.”

(Quick digression: Dear T-U, the name of this publication is Folio Weekly, not Folio Magazine, and we’d appreciate it if you got that right. See, there’s actually a publication called Folio: Magazine, which is based in Connecticut and covers the magazine publishing industry. They probably don’t know who Robin Lumb is.)

The same day Lumb rose in defense of Yarborough against the Cultural Council, columnist Ron Littlepage defended him, too, in the pages of the daily newspaper, pleading with us to respect Yarborough’s beliefs and not make fun of him.

To wit: “Yarborough is entitled to his opinion, and having followed his City Council career for almost eight years now, I’m certain he is sincere in his belief. … Unfortunately, some have poked fun at Yarborough, as was evidenced by signs protesters carried during Art Walk Wednesday evening.”

Littlepage, after all, grew up in a conservative Baptist church, so he understands those, like Yarborough, who believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, and since Yarborough’s discomfort with the human form and his desire to impose his own prudish sensibilities on the rest of us stem from these sincere beliefs, we shouldn’t say mean things about him.

“It’s always dangerous to try to impose one’s religious views on an entire city,” Littlepage opined. “But as a citizen and a taxpayer, Yarborough had the right to ask for that. He also had that right as a member of the City Council.”

Sure, he had the right to ask. And the rest of us had the right — actually, the obligation — to rise up and say not just no, but hell no.

Yarborough deserved every ounce of derision thrown his way — in these pages, at Art Walk, by the Cultural Council (although I don’t think they did, really). More important, it needed to happen, for the good of the city.

It doesn’t matter whether his beliefs are sincerely held or the byproduct of some bad mushrooms he got at the grocery store. He, an elected official of this municipality, the City Council president, slandered a fine artist as a pornographer, slandered her work as smut. He embarrassed this city on a national stage; when was the last time The New York Times deigned mention the doings of a Jacksonville 
city councilman?

The way to show the world that Clay Yarborough does not speak for us — that we’re not all small-minded, uncultured hicks who know nothing about art (and, for that matter, nothing about porn, either) — was to do exactly what we did: Smother this crap in its cradle with great and overwhelming prejudice, to let it be known that we will not tolerate anyone trying to bully or censor our arts community ever again.

All that said, I get where Lumb is coming from: “When a group like the Cultural Council starts to accept public funding, they became an advocacy organization that of necessity needs to walk a fine line,” he told me in an email. (As Lumb voiced some concern about being quoted in context, I’ve posted the entire exchange on our blog.) “That line was crossed when they used public funds to achieve a political objective: silencing a critic by shaming him.”

That sounds entirely reasonable, except that, well, I don’t see how the Cultural Council actually tried to shame Yarborough. The only thing, beyond the link to my story — which was included in a string of links to six other stories on the subject — that could be construed as “shaming” was the Cultural Council’s official statement: “Yarborough’s objection … is unfortunate and could be viewed as an effort to stifle artistic expression.” Pretty benign.

Yes, the Cultural Council encouraged people to call or email Yarborough’s office to register their displeasure. And Lumb believes that this call for action and the link to my “disparagements,” as he puts it, crossed the bridge from “principled advocacy to political activism,” but I fail to see how activism in the service of advocacy is a bad thing. The two are quite often, and quite necessarily, intertwined. Advocating on behalf of the arts community is part and parcel of the Cultural Council’s mission. When politicians interfere, political activism becomes necessary.

The day Lumb wrote his letter, I reached out to Cultural Council chairman Abel Harding for comment. He more or less declined; the organization is more interested in smoothing the waters than stirring the pot. “I don’t think engaging in a back-and-forth in a public space would be productive at this point,” he wrote in a Facebook message.

He’s probably right. There’s no need for another fight. The Cultural Council, and the city as a whole, already won this round, and decisively at that — thanks, in part, to a healthy dose of public shaming.

Folio is your guide to entertainment and culture around and near Jacksonville, Florida. We cover events, concerts, restaurants, theatre, sports, art, happenings, and all things about living and visiting Jax. Folio serves more than two million readers across Jacksonville and Northeast Florida, including St. Augustine, The Beaches, and Fernandina.

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