Patriotism and Penis art in Boulder

Financial Times, December 27, 2001

Hannah Nordhaus finds the residents of a US town struggling over the meaning of patriotism and censorship

Boulder, Colorado is a liberal university town in the middle of the conservative US heartland and it has never been much of a place for patriotic displays of flag-waving. This reticence, however, has sparked a cultural war in which citizens have gone into battle over a large US flag, a string of ceramic penises and a thief in a tam-o’-shanter.

In the weeks since September 11, people across the United States have brandished the stars and stripes. They have hung them from windows, strung them on car antennae, draped them as fashion accessories.

But, in the idyllic berg that neighbors often deride as the “People’s Republic of Boulder”, patriotic fervour has been conspicuous by its absence. On block after block of tidy Victorian houses, an observer could spot more Tibetan prayer flags than American flags fluttering in the mountain breezes.

The skirmishing began in late October when some employees of the Boulder Public Library asked to hang a 10- by 15-foot American flag in the building’s south entrance. Marcelee Gralapp, the library director, demurred, explaining that the flag was too ostentatious in that particular location and might compromise the library’s “objectivity”.

She told the local newspaper: “The idea is to make the library politically neutral. We have people of every faith and culture walking into the building, and we want everybody to feel welcome”.

In the weeks that followed, thousands of angry letters and e-mail messages poured into Boulder. How, the writers asked, could a flag in a public institution possibly offend? Many were under the incorrect impression that the city had banned flags from the library entirely.

Gralapp was called “un-American” and “a pinko”. One angry writer even suggested that Gralapp be sent to Afghanistan to run a library there. Some citizens from Boulder’s more conservative suburbs began to call for a boycott of Boulder and its businesses.

Finally, city officials relented and placed a smaller flag on a pole near the disputed entrance. But this failed to appease the library’s critics, who soon fixed their sights upon an exhibit in the library’s art gallery. The Art Triumphs Over Domestic Violence show, organised by a local women’s shelter, featured an installation entitled “Hanging ‘Em Out to Dry,” which consisted of 21 multi-coloured ceramic penises hanging from a clothes-line. On radio talk shows, callers began to note that the same library that balked at flying flags had no reservations about hanging “penis art”.

Criticism mounted, and on a Saturday afternoon in early November, 49-year-old Bob Rowan entered the gallery and plucked the penises from the clothesline. In their place he pinned a small cloth flag and his calling card: “El Dildo Bandito was here.”

When the missing phalluses hit the news, Rowan called a Denver radio talk show and confessed. He lives outside Boulder and appears for the press in a tam-o’-shanter and a T-shirt that reads “Viva El Bandito”. He explained that he felt the work was tax-supported pornography. In this time of national peril, he said, such public “male-bashing” was also ” a real kick in the groin to our boys overseas”.

Police issued Rowan a summons for criminal tampering. Inspired by his act, another anonymous bandito raided the library, this time removing a bust of a woman’s breasts from the exhibition. As a result, the library hired security guards to patrol the area.

The debate over censorship and freedom took yet another bizarre turn in late November when Colorado Republican congressman Tom Tancredo introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would deny federal funding to any entity that banned US flags.

It was a purely symbolic gesture, since the library had never, in fact, banned flags. But the idea of government-enforced flag-flying struck some in Boulder as a particularly ironic denouement to the city’s flag controversy. Indeed, for some in Boulder, Tancredo’s bill buttressed Marcelee Gralapp’s original point in refusing to hang the flag – for those leery of jingoism, the flag is not always “politically neutral”.

Although Boulder spent nearly $1600 protecting the art show and is now revisiting its policy on freedom of expression, exhibition planners believe that the controversy was in fact a victory for the cause of domestic violence awareness: when the show closed November 26, it had received more visitors than any in the gallery’s history.

The flag-wavers also claimed victory. Boulder had flown a flag and banished the penises. The forces of patriotism, boasted the editor of a conservative e-mail circular, had “once again flushed out and exposed a cabal of left-wing loonies, hit them with truth, justice, and the American way and sent them scurrying back into the darkness”.

Rowan, meanwhile, has been hailed as a hero in his battle to expose the enemies of freedom in America. He is pleased, if surprised, that people found his antics so riveting. “In my wildest imagination,” he told a local paper, “I never figured this would get so much frickin’ attention.”