Massachusetts’ Salem State University has agreed to temporarily close an art exhibit intended to draw attention to the evils of discrimination after students said they were offended by the images the artist used to do so. The move is the latest in a growing trend of student-driven demands to censor art.
As reported today in Inside Higher Ed, Salem State students complained to school officials and on social media about images in an election-inspired exhibit called “State of the Union” at the school’s Winfisky Gallery that included photo illustrations of the Ku Klux Klan and of Jews arrested after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in German-occupied Poland during World War II. The artist, Garry Harley, told Inside Higher Ed he used the startling images to criticize President-Elect Donald Trump’s discussion of minorities during his presidential campaign.
According to a timeline posted by Salem State, the school first learned about “students’ objections to the exhibit” on November 16. The following Monday, the school held a discussion attended by about 50 students, faculty, staff, gallery curator Ken Reker, and Harley, after which the school decided to temporarily close the exhibit.
In a joint statement the next day, Mary Melilli, Chair of the school’s Art + Design program and Reker jointly apologized for the display:
We would like to apologize to those in the campus community who have experienced distress resulting from this exhibit. We are sorry. Yesterday’s conversation made clear the strong emotions this exhibit has caused.
Art is often intended to spark discussion about societal ills. In this case, it did just that, but we deeply regret the distress it has caused students. We thank the students for sharing their views, and we look forward to working with them to determine how to move forward.
But Harley, the artist, told Inside Higher Ed that the discussion leading to the closure raised troubling questions about whether the students calling for removal of his work had really engaged with it, and whether Salem State prioritized freedom of expression:
Harley explained that he viewed his art as warning about the dangers of Trump’s rhetoric and that he viewed art as a tool with which to spread alarm. But he said that “the anger of the students sort of overwhelmed” what he was trying to say.
“I saw a lot of projected anger in the room, and it had nothing to do with a thoughtful understanding of the piece,” he said.
Harley said that he thought Salem State was surprised by the students’ anger. Part of displaying art at a campus, he said, is defending free expression “and they weren’t prepared to do that.”
The Salem News reports that a meeting for faculty and students to discuss the future of the exhibit is scheduled for tomorrow at 3:30 p.m. The meeting is closed to the public and the press.
The idea that censoring art is a bad idea is fairly firmly entrenched in the American psyche—and the law prohibits public entities from doing it—but that hasn’t stopped campuses in recent years from doing it anyway.
This summer, FIRE and the National Coalition Against Censorship asked the University of Wisconsin–Stout to reconsider its plan to display paintings of Native Americans in a “controlled environment.” The school had initially agreed to remove the paintings altogether after students complained the depictions reinforced negative stereotypes about native people.
Last year, an art student at the State University of New York at Buffalo, intending to inspire conversation on race, hung “black only” and “white only” signs on campus restrooms. Instead, she inspired backlash from fellow students, some of whom called campus police.
This was posted on a public bathroom at UB. Not only is this a hate crime, but it is also an act of terrorism. pic.twitter.com/nhE5qMquvV
— James. (@JVMES_BVTTLE) September 16, 2015
In 2014, the University of Iowa apologized for not responding sooner to student and faculty complaints over a large statue of a Ku Klux Klan member that visiting professor Serhat Tanyolacar created using newspaper clippings describing racial violence. Students and faculty said the piece constituted “hate speech.” We pointed out at the time that both UI’s own policy and First Amendment jurisprudence indicated the piece was protected expression. As my colleague Susan Kruth wrote at the time, it was “speech that, if tolerated, might have contributed to a productive discussion.”
Earlier that year, we commented on the controversy surrounding the “Sleepwalker” statue at Wellesley College by sculptor Tony Matelli. Some students worried that the piece might “trigger” student-victims of sexual assault. Author Lenore Skenazy observed in an analysis in the Wall Street Journal that “Art is a trigger.”
Administrators must resist giving in to these demands. On public campuses, many of these art projects are protected by the First Amendment, and on private campuses that promise free expression, schools must uphold those promises.
Art is a unique medium. It may be the only vehicle to convey an idea or expression in the precise way the artist intends. Many times, art provokes intense, uncomfortable emotions. Many times, art offends. And many times, that’s the point.
Students should be encouraged to thoughtfully engage with art installations like the one at Salem State. If offended, they should respond with their own expression, not censorship.
Artists on campus who have been censored should contact FIRE.
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