Freedom of Speech

Is the Guggenheim Bilbao Censoring Artists?

The Guggenheim Bilbao has ordered a mural that caricatures the museum to be taken down, but the artists are arguing the artwork's removal would violate their freedom of speech.

Camilo Brau

Could a respected museum be violating artists’ freedom of speech in Spain? The Guggenheim Bilbao ordered a mural created by artists Mike Bouchet and Paul McCarthy that depicts the museum with hand-drawn sketches reinterpreting it as a battleship to be taken down. The mural coincides with an exhibition by the artists, titled “Powered A-Hole Spanish Donkey Sport Dick Drink Donkey Dong Dongs Sunscreen Model,” at the contemporary art space Portikus in Frankfurt that criticizes art institutions as, according to a press release, “self-serving mechanisms for their board members.”

“What’s the purpose of these museums?” pondered Bouchet in a recent phone conversation. “The purpose of museums like this probably have more to do with city tourism than with art.”

Bouchet and McCarthy worked with a Spanish media company that sells billboard space throughout Bilbao in order to place the large-scale piece, which has hung since April 2, on 31 Gran Via, also home to a Massimo Dutti retail shop.

The artists first conceptualized the piece in the early 2000s, when they likened the Guggenheim Bilbao’s Frank Gehry-designed building to a battleship. “We were amazed that we hadn’t seen it come up before in popular media,” Bouchet said. “I think the fact that they reacted so strongly, that they were not interested in any sort of artistic interpretation of their museum… It’s hard for me to say what their motivation is, other than that image of the museum as a battleship, there must be some sensitivity to that particular image because it happens to look like it so much.” Bouchet went on to explain that the Guggenheim Bilbao said that they own all the rights to any reproduction of the museum.

The museum’s request could be violating Article 20 of the Spanish Constitution, which allows “the right to freely express and disseminate thoughts, ideas and opinions through words, in writing or by any other means of communication” and “the right to literary, artistic, scientific and technical production and creation.” “We have the right to make those kind of critiques, so them removing this image, and being really aggressive in taking this picture down, is problematic, in that it really gets into this thing with what’s an artist’s right?” said Bouchet.

The Guggenheim Bilbao contacted Bouchet’s New York gallery, Marlborough Chelsea, asking them to have Bouchet take down the mural, and said they would take further action if it did not come down by April 11.

“What’s the role of art? It’s to critique, to be able to speak,” said Bouchet. “You can say ‘yeah this is copyright infringement,’ but it’s clearly a work of art. It’s clearly a caricature.”

When asked for comment, the Guggenheim Bilbao issued this statement:

"The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao has not addressed any artist requesting the removal of an artwork.

"The Museum wrote to a publicity agency, VSA Comunicación, as they had installed in a Gran Vía building a large commercial banner featuring an image of the Museum, which is trademarked, without the Museum's knowledge or permission. Said publicity banner does not contain any reference to any artist's name, so the removal of the billboard was requested.

"The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao absolutely respects the artists' rights and it likewise protects its own image rights and those of Frank Gehry's building."

Powered A-Hole Spanish Donkey Sport Dick Drink Donkey Dong Dongs Sunscreen Model, is on display at the Portikus Museum in Frankfurt through April 20. An extension of the exhibit will be traveling to Monaco in July for Marlborough Chelsea’s debut at Marlborough Monaco.

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Editor's Note: This piece has been updated with comment from the Guggenheim Bilbao.