09/09/2013 02:09 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2013

Putin in Women's Clothes Reminiscent of Harold Washington in Negligee

Good for a laugh, a Russian artist named Konstantin Altunin painted a large-scale picture of the nation's president Vladimir Putin wearing lingerie who is tenderly combing the hair of the premier Dmitry Medvedev who is clad in a bra and panties. Altunin appears to have made a bit of a career of lampooning Soviet-era figures, and this new painting tackles the recently enacted Russian law that outlaws the spread of what is called "gay propaganda."

Russia is not the United States, however, and freedom of expression is not part of that nation's constitution, but a law against insulting authorities is. (A similar law, aimed at those who offend "religious feelings," resulted in the jailing of the women of a performance group, Pussy Riot) As a result, the police are looking to arrest Altunin, who has gone into hiding.

Should we take a sigh of relief that we live in a free country? I was reminded of a similar artwork parody that took place at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1989. A student named David Nelson painted an image of the then recently deceased Chicago Mayor Harold Washington wearing a flimsy negligee. The painting was titled "Mirth and Girth," a reference to a known gay bar in the city and suggestive of whispers about the late mayor's unclear sexuality. Nelson hung the work as his contribution to a student exhibition. An African-American secretary at the art school took offense at the painting of the city's first African-American mayor, phoning a local black radio station to spread the news.

Within an hour, a group of black aldermen marched into the administrative offices of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, removing a painting (and tearing a corner in the process), then marching into the school president's office and threatened to burn the painting. The picture was eventually impounded by the police and returned to Nelson, who was difficult to find for a period of time as he had gone into hiding. The school administration, under pressure of demonstrations, bomb threats and angry legislators, took out full-page ads in Chicago newspapers apologizing for the "distress" that "Mirth and Girth" might have caused. Carol Becker, then dean of the faculty at the School of the Art Institute, publicly denounced the work as racist. (I defy anyone to tell me the educational value of an art school instructor or administrator publicly denouncing a student's work, regardless of the content.)

No criminal charges were ever filed against the aldermen -- "that would have been perceived as adding fuel to the fire," said Roger Gilmore, former dean of the School of the Art Institute and later dean of the Maine College of Art. "Why make things worse than they already were?" (A civil action against the aldermen resulted in a monetary fine.) Where David Nelson is now, and what he does for a living, I have no idea. No one emerged from this incident looking good, but what message can artists take from this but to avoid provocative subject matter. Clearly, an art school wanted no part in defending its student from physical or psychological harm or defending First Amendment rights. Before we pity Konstantin Altunin, are we so sure that things are better here?