Art and the College Administrator

Why will officials who would think twice before banning a book close or alter an exhibit or play? Why is academic freedom more difficult to defend in a theater or museum?
March 10, 2008

Even a few days later, Branda Miller's voice rises with anger as she recalls what happened in her course Wednesday at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. An artist-in-residence -- whose presence had been approved through all official channels -- was in the middle of a discussion with her students when three administrators arrived, told her they needed to take the artist with them at once, escorted him to another classroom, and refused to let Miller enter or to offer any explanation to her or her students. Shortly after the disruption of her class, RPI ordered the exhibit set up by the artist -- a video game based in part on an Al Qaeda video game involving attempts to kill President Bush -- shut down pending a review.

"This isn't just shutting down an exhibit," Miller said. "This is an assault on my classroom, an assault on academic freedom and freedom of expression."

As the officials took away her guest, Miller said, "I thought, 'this must be what it feels like to be in Iraq.' A moment of compassion crossed my mind" as she thought about teaching in an environment where officials can show up in class, take someone away, and offer no explanation. "I was imagining professors attempting to teach their students in countries where academic freedom does not exist, where even their lives are at risk."

The furor at RPI is one of several recent incidents involving controversial art in the higher education setting. In all of the cases, issues of safety or security or politics are raised by those questioning or limiting art -- while others are in turn raising concerns about academic and artistic freedom.

At Arkansas Tech University last month, administrators shut down a production of the musical Assassins, saying it would be too dangerous to put on after the killings at Northern Illinois University. After widespread protests, the show has been rescheduled but with strict rules (bag searches, advance ticket sales only) that many professors say are needless and discouraging.

At Middlebury College last week, some students are angry over the removal of a a student's staged art photograph showing another student with a toy gun in his mouth. At Cuesta College, in California, the faculty union and administration are fighting over a 2005 production of Cabaret that offended some donors -- and that professors say has been a pretext for going after one of their colleagues who helped lead the show. And at the University of Dallas, administrators are being criticized for not removing from an exhibit a print -- since stolen -- depicting the Virgin Mary as a stripper, The Dallas Morning News reported.

To be sure, there is no shortage of cutting-edge or controversial art to be found on college campuses. But it's also true that the combination of art and higher education sometimes has more potential than books or lectures to become a target. The late Robert Mapplethorpe was well known for his sexually charged photography for years prior to an exhibit in 1988 at the University of Pennsylvania's Institute of Contemporary Art, but it was that exhibit (along with one other) that set off years of debate over the National Endowment for the Arts because a small NEA grant provided some support for the show.

Arts experts say that several factors make art in higher education particularly vulnerable when controversy strikes. One is that many people on a campus aren't seeking out an arts experience in the way that would more typically be the case of someone going to a gallery or the theater. One issue at Middlebury, for example, is that the photographs were on display in a space that students would walk by -- not necessarily looking for art.

Jonathan Knight, who handles academic freedom issues for the American Association of University Professors, said that "art has a way of triggering stronger responses [than academic articles or books] because it is typically exhibited in places that will be seen not just by members of the academic community, but by the public." As a result, "administrators may have a stronger sense that an exhibition suggests an endorsement of the institution."

Much good art, Knight said, "has an immediacy" and "seeks to trigger a strong reaction," so it should be no surprise that this happens. While the same might be said about many academic articles or books, "it may take quite a few pages of reading" -- and more of a time commitment than many critics will make -- to hit an "inflammatory argument."

While those factors may explain why administrators who wouldn't ban a book will shut down an exhibit, Knight said that they do not justify doing so. AAUP policy is clear, he said, that academic freedom includes free artistic expression on campuses.

"Works of the visual or performing arts are as much engaged in pursuit of the academic mission of the institution -- to expand knowledge, to challenge views -- as are public talks by professors, articles professors write in journals, or books that they publish with presses, and therefore should be afforded the same kinds of protections," Knight said.

"The kinds of reactions we are seeing cannot be reconciled with freedom of expression and freedom of creativity which we associate with artistic expression," Knight added.

Nicola Courtright, a professor of fine arts at Amherst College and president of the College Art Association, said that art on campuses -- as with good art everywhere -- "has to be protected even when it is dealing with controversial and touchy subjects."

While Courtright wasn't familiar with the art at issue at RPI, she noted that there is a long history of artistic portrayals of violent acts in which the art is "to encourage you to reflect," not to do anything violent. She added that many who express periodic concern about violence in art somehow don't focus on violence in television.

Why does art seem to lead to so many censorship battles in higher ed, compared to other forms of scholarly communication of ideas? "Books have covers that can be closed," Courtright said.

From Iraq to RPI

Last week's incidents at RPI focused on art inspired by events in Iraq. Wafaa Bilal, the artist who was escorted from a classroom last week and whose video art was blocked from being shown, was born in Iraq. He fled in 1991, at the age of 23, after objecting to the autocratic rule of Saddam Hussein. An artist who works in many media, Bilal is an adjunct at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In an interview Friday, he said that while he uses his art to criticize the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he also opposed Hussein's rule and opposes terrorism in Iraq or elsewhere.

The work that prompted the uproar at RPI is a video game Bilal created called "Virtual Jihadi," inspired by two previous video games produced by others (both of which have since been copied and appear in many forms). In the first, "Quest for Saddam," players tried to capture the deposed and since executed leader of Iraq. That game inspired an Al Qaeda version called "The Night of Bush Capturing," which features players trying to kill the American president. In Bilal's version, "Virtual Jihadi," a player based on his life is part of the Bush game.

Those who view the game as an endorsement of terrorism are missing the point, Bilal said. "I'm trying to show Iraqis become vulnerable to joining terrorist groups, because there is no protection by the United States" and no secure society in which people can live. His idea, Bilal said, isn't that it is good to join terrorist groups, but that the failure of U.S. policy leads Iraqis to make such choices. "These guys feel forced to join groups where they blow themselves up," he said.

When Bilal was questioned about his work by college administrators Wednesday after they removed him from Miller's course, he said that they asked questions about whether he supported terrorism, and that they "didn't seem to understand" how art makes points that aren't necessarily literal. He said that being ordered out of a class and being asked about his art in such a hostile way reminded him of life under Saddam in Iraq.

As soon as the College Republicans heard about the exhibit, they started to complain about it. While Republican leaders did not respond to messages, they have posted on their blog several items criticizing Bilal and his art. One posting is called "The RPI Arts Department: A Terrorist Safehaven," and says of Bilal's art: "This is something RPI should be ashamed to have its name even mentioned with, let alone be sponsoring."

Another post is a copy of a letter from an unnamed alumnus to institute administrators, in which the alumnus said "so long as RPI sponsors these kinds of events, giving absolutely no consideration given to military alumnus, friends and family of the university, I will not contribute a dime to the school." The letter called Bilal's explanation of his work "absurd."

Wrote the alumnus: "At the very least, the arts department should issue a public apology to all those who are offended by this affront to both reason and morality. I fully support energetic and vocal criticism of America's policy in Iraq, civilian casualties in Iraq, and the veracity of our purpose, but not efforts to sympathize with what is essentially terrorism, whether or not it is carried out by the young, hurt and confused. If Mr. Bilal truly 'seeks to imbue his audiences with a sense of empowerment that comes from hope in the enduring potential of humanity' he would not ask us to look into the heart of a killer, and try to understand what drove him to atrocity. Hope and humanity are not equatable with murder."

Following the criticism of the Republicans, several sources in the art department at RPI said that they were told by institute officials that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was interested in the exhibit, but neither the FBI nor the institute would confirm or deny bureau involvement.

William N. Walker, vice president for strategic communications and external relations at RPI, issued a statement in which he said that the institute welcomed Bilal "to contribute to the intellectual and artistic life of the institute, and we look forward to his continued presence in our classrooms and studios as a visiting artist."

Walker's statement said that RPI has "suspended" Bilal's exhibit because "important concerns surfaced that the work may be based on a product of Al Qaeda, and questions were raised regarding its legality and its consistency with the norms and policies of the institute.... Rensselaer fully supports academic and artistic freedom. The question under review regards the use of university resources to provide a platform for what may be a product of a terrorist organization or which suggests violence directed toward the President of the United States and his family."

The spokeswoman who sent the statement declined to answer such questions as why Bilal had to be removed from a class session and what message that sent to students. She said repeatedly that RPI would not answer any questions beyond issuing the statement.

Miller, the professor whose class was interrupted, said that RPI's handling of the situation makes no sense. She noted that Bilal's artistic credentials are strong and that he is very open about the fact that his work is based on an Al Qaeda video game. "I think this is a very complex discussion," she said. "He's an artist. He's very intelligent, very serious, very kind. He is trying to make a point."

Another key point, Miller said, is that RPI students are hardly fragile innocents about video gaming. "My students play these games. Some of these games are embedded with violence and racism and the ability to dislocate your sense of self when you kill someone," she said. Bilal was trying "to get people to think about the games," she said.

Adding to the tensions at RPI is that many faculty members remain angry that the institute eliminated the Faculty Senate last year after it -- against the wishes of the institute's board -- decided to give voting right to full-time, non-tenure track faculty members. In 2006, the faculty narrowly rejected a no confidence vote against President Shirley Ann Jackson, who is seen as a national leader on many science and technology issues, but whose priorities have been questioned by many in its Troy, N.Y., home.

Nancy D. Campbell, an associate professor of science and technology studies who was the secretary of the Faculty Senate that RPI abolished, said that the idea that "President Jackson could send henchmen" into a classroom to remove an invited lecturer reflected how bad things had become at the institute. "I think this is yet another example of this president overstepping authority and taking matters into her own hands before she has gathered the wisdom of her faculty," Campbell said. "She cannot conduct any kind of democratic relationship.... We live in a climate of fear."

Photography With a Toy Gun

At Middlebury College, a student's photo exhibit -- meant in part to spark reflection on last year's Virginia Tech killings, but going up right after the Northern Illinois University killings -- is setting off controversy. The exhibit features a series of photographs of students with a toy gun.

The college removed one photograph, in which a student is shown with a gun in his mouth. (The photo removed is the third in the series that accompanies this article in The Middlebury Campus, the student newspaper.)

A college spokeswoman said that Stuart Hurt, a graduate intern at Middlebury's art museum, curated the photo exhibit and made the decision to remove the photo in question, after some complaints came in and based on discussions with a variety of others. Removing one photograph -- while also adding an explanatory text for the exhibit -- offered a "good compromise," to keep the exhibit up, while also respecting the wishes of others.

The spokeswoman also noted the space where the photographs are on display. "This is a space that people often have to walk through rather than a museum exhibit where they choose to go. This point provokes the question, should art in very public places be different than that found in a museum?" One good thing to come out of this, according to Stuart, is the fact that an art exhibit is the subject of discussion on campus since he thinks that art should be a topic of discussion at Middlebury more often than it currently is."

Aaron Gensler, the Middlebury student whose photographs are on display, said she believed they all deserved to be viewed. "Censorship is never necessary. My piece was about human response and reaction and it has been an interesting process to see what, in each of the various installations, people have chosen to react to," she said. Gensler added, via e-mail: "I also believe that I should also have the chance to introduce art that provokes thought. It is true that my artwork was not intended to cause debate about censorship and the issues of public art; nevertheless, I am excited that it has."

An editorial in the student paper backed Gensler and criticized the decision to remove one of the photographs.

"Gensler's exhibit ... seems to have been intended not to inflame understandably tender feelings stemming from this violence and uncertainty but rather to encourage open and thoughtful dialogue. The photographs of students holding a toy gun are undeniably uncomfortable, but Gensler's photographs challenge visitors to the gallery to think critically about the American relationship to the gun, the role of gun violence on college campuses and the breadth of images and messages about firearms that Americans encounter every day," the editorial said. It added that removing a photograph "set a dangerous precedent for a student's ability to present challenging, startling and even provocative art on campus."


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