In addition to stirring passions on every side of the issue, the controversy last week over the Empty Bottle booking what may or may not be a "white power" band reignites two of the oldest debates in the art world.
Is a band guilty of espousing fascist opinions just because it uses fascist imagery? And, more pressingly, is censorship ever a valid response in protesting objectionable ideas?
The Empty Bottle, which is in its 11th year of presenting some of the most musically and culturally diverse sounds in the city, was scheduled to host English art-rockers rockers Death in June last Saturday as part of a package bill with openers Changes and Der Blutharsch. But Bruce Finkelman, owner of the Ukrainian Village club, canceled the show on Friday under pressure from a local activist group, the Center for New Community.
CNC describes itself on its Web site as "a faith-based, rural-urban initiative whose mission is to revitalize congregations and community for genuine social, economic and political democracy." It branded the bands as racist and anti-Semitic in a focused and well-organized e-mail and phone campaign that started about 10 days before the concert.
The evidence that CNC presented for its claims was sketchy at best. The Anti-Defamation League, the acknowledged authority on charting white power movements, had no files on the groups. And Finkelman (who is Jewish) and his staff (which includes African Americans) initially decided that the show should go on.
As the debate raged via dozens of contentious posts on the Empty Bottle Web site, Finkelman removed Changes from the bill. (The Chicago band's leader has made racially inflammatory remarks in the past, but insists that his music does not promote a white separatist agenda.) But Finkelman defended the other bands' right to perform, noting, "We have yet to find information that directly links Death in June and/or Der Blutharsch to the Nazi party, nor have we been able [yet] to uncover concrete allegiances to any single fascist ideological group."
Believers or provokers?
Death in June has been performing and building a sizable underground following for its dramatic and ethereal industrial/folk-rock for two decades now. Its leader, Douglas Pearce, is openly gay and a former member of the leftist punk band Crisis, and the group had a Jewish member in the past.
The band is named for June 30, 1934, "the Night of Long Knives," when Adolf Hitler purged Ernst Roehm and his leftist brown shirts to bring the Nazi party farther to the right. It uses images associated with Nazism, including a symbol similar to the death's head insignia favored by the SS. But its Web site and lyrics that are available on the Net espouse no racist, anti-Semitic or particular political beliefs.
From Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones (who occasionally donned an SS uniform) to the English bands Joy Division and New Order (which took their names from Nazi terminology), and from shock-rocker Marilyn Manson to the Yugoslavian industrial group Laibach (which adopted fascist artwork as a statement against fascism), many rock bands have flirted with Nazi imagery, especially in the industrial and goth genres.
While using Nazi images is certainly offensive to many -- and most bands that incorporate them do so precisely to provoke outrage -- it does not automatically mean that the artists are racist, anti-Semitic or Nazi/fascist sympathizers.
Questions have lingered about Death in June's political beliefs throughout its career, but Pearce has refused to address the subject directly. CNC activist Eric Ward says that Pearce "has purposely tried to walk the line of obscuring [his political views]" in order to win mainstream acceptance. But Pearce seems to believe that people should judge his music and decide for themselves, which is certainly the artist's (and the listener's) right.
Eric Polcyn of local promoters American Gothic Productions was not involved with the Empty Bottle show, but he booked Death in June in Chicago in October 2002. That show was moved to the Congress Theatre after the Park West canceled because of an earlier protest by CNC.
Polcyn said that he has spoken at length with Pearce and does not believe that he is a Nazi. "But once people start throwing that word around, the truth goes out the window," he added.
While Ward admitted that there is debate about Death in June's actual beliefs, he maintained that he "feels pretty confident" in characterizing the group as pro-Nazi. He cited the facts that it once pulled out of performing at an anti-racist benefit in Europe; that it has associated with other artists who espouse fascist views (including one musician who also worked with Bjork), and that it is championed by some white-power fans.
'Black mark' on community
But artists do not choose their fans; they shouldn't necessarily be held responsible for the views or actions of their collaborators, and it seems unfair to blame them for some of their followers who may have crackpot beliefs. Charles Manson infamously heard songs on "The White Album" urging him to commit murder and incite a race war, but the Beatles weren't tarred for something they never said and couldn't possibly have intended.
The saddest part of this story is that the Chicago music scene missed an opportunity to sort fact from fiction and host a forum on these controversial ideas.
At one point during CNC's protest, Finkelman proposed a compromise: He invited that group and others to distribute anti-racist, anti-Nazi information at the club, and he offered to give the venue's share of the proceeds to the ADL. The band would have had its say onstage, while critics stood ready to debate its ideas and prejudiced fans.
Free speech could have prevailed in the face of confusion and suspicion. But CNC rejected the offer -- Ward said the group feared for the safety of its members if it attended the show -- and it kept up the pressure.
Concerned about threats of violence from people on both sides of the issue, Finkelman finally cancelled the show. The concert moved to Deja vu, and though its owners also canceled at the last minute on Saturday, several violent confrontations did indeed take place outside the Lincoln Park nightclub between fans and activists from another group, Anti-Racist Action.
The fact that Death in June never got to perform in Chicago -- and that CNC promises to protest any appearances by the band here in the future -- means that the questions will continue to linger, and that the hatred may just keep growing.
"I think that this is going to leave a black mark on the arts community for a while," Finkelman said this week. "Giving somebody with a computer and an e-mail account the strength to be able to cancel a show, a theater event or an art showing is a scary thought. You just hope that there's going to be some sort of discussion about this, and if people listen to each other, maybe we'll get somewhere."
Jim DeRogatis: Pop Music Critic
Nazis or not? Censorship keeps fans from deciding
17 Dec 2003