Regulating Art That Offends

Fallout from a racially charged art project at SUNY Buffalo could lead to guidelines some say will impede free student expression.

November 13, 2015
SUNY Buffalo art project

Almost three months after a racially charged art project stirred controversy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, administrators, faculty members and students are still deliberating whether to adopt guidelines for public art on campus.

At the root of the debate is a series of signs reading “White Only” and “Black Only” that appeared mysteriously and suddenly around campus in September, eliciting fear and shock from students. After it became clear a graduate art student named Ashley Powell had posted the signs as part of a project for her Urban Spaces class, the whole episode took on a new dimension.

Many students argued that, art or no (and several rejected the notion this qualified as art in the first place), the signs caused real hurt and distress to African-American students on campus in particular and were therefore inappropriate for a campus setting. Others defended the artist’s right to free expression, and Powell, who is black, said the project accomplished exactly what it intended to: bringing to the surface important and painful feelings people otherwise keep buried.

In the aftermath of the incident, the university’s president, Satish Tripathi, announced a series of steps the college would take to address student concerns. Some, such as, “Encouraging discussions … about negotiating the boundaries of freedom of expression,” were general, and some, like, “convening a students of color advisory committee to the University Police Department,” were more concrete.

A separate committee in the College of Arts and Sciences is examining the possibility of changing college policies and possibly instituting new guidelines specifically regarding public art on campus.

The campus's Black Student Union is leading the charge among students on campus pressing for the administration to outline a concrete policy for future works of public art.

"As a student on campus, you have the right to feel safe as you walk around campus, and you have the right to feel welcomed to attend campus," said Tiffany Vera, secretary for the Black Student Union. "If the university is preaching so much that it’s a diverse community, then that should be expressed in the policies and procures that the university has."

The group's primary focus for new policies has been twofold, Vera said. First, that future public art on campus come with a disclaimer, some sort of indication that it's meant to be art. And, second, that new guidelines are sensitive in some way to historical context in order to prevent similar racially or otherwise insensitive episodes in the future. "As an institution, we are supposed to be pushing boundaries," she said. "But there's only so much you can do. You don't push a boundary at the expense of a student, whether it's physically, mentally or emotionally. If that boundary is crossed, it's not OK."

What the committee's determination will be remains unclear, and “we prefer not to speculate on the outcome of their discussions,” said John Della Contrada, a university spokesman.

Tripathi, however, did say in a recent interview with the student newspaper (confirmed by the university) that, “when it’s put on the wall, one should say that this is art. So there must be a policy on the campus. The arts department can come up with a policy that if you are doing any kind of experiment, you register yourself with art department.”

The art department has done exactly that -- created a (currently empty) registry for campus public art projects that includes the location of the project and the date of its installation as well as names of the artist and the assigning professor. But that list is something one could check after the fact. It wouldn't be visible to a student encountering a controversial sign or piece of art on campus.

But that’s as far as Jonathan Katz, chair of the art department, says the administration ought to go. Public art, or “public interventions,” rely on the interaction between an unsuspecting or unaware public, “and if you declare [this is art] at the initiation of that interaction, you diminish if not obviate altogether the intensity of that response,” he said. So use of a label or wall note “is not something we will agree to.”

“The negative reaction from students has been a real source of pain for me and [Powell],” Katz said. “And we certainly understand where it’s coming from, but we welcome the opportunity to discuss how art can and should work …. Raising these issues in order to form a cultural conversation is the only way to go through this.”

“Not talking about it is a classic case of repression,” he said.

With the controversy over Powell’s signs, her university joined a group of institutions where public art projects drew disapproval from some on their campuses. Students and staff at Wellesley College were disturbed by a statue of a naked man in his underwear on campus, and University of Iowa students protested the erection of a seven-foot Ku Klux Klan robe on campus.

“People can feel quite affronted by the fact that their participation in the artwork is involuntary,” said DeWitt Godfrey, chair of art and art history at Colgate University and president of the board for the College Art Association. “I think you have to preserve the student’s right to be provocative, or in this case, I think, offensive.”

It falls to the faculty to ensure their students think through and understand the implications and possible fallout from their work, he said. “I think having a general set of guidelines is a good thing … but you wouldn’t want to see guidelines that limit expression.”

At Colgate, said Godfrey, who is also a teacher and artist who works with public projects, students must run their proposed projects by the facility departments to ensure they pass a kind of logistical muster, ensuring there are no safety concerns, for example, and that there is a definite end date and plan for their removal. But the review is not about the substance or message of the art.

It's to let a relevant someone know “something might appear” before it does, Godfrey said.

But in the end none of that should prevent students from creating the art they want to. “Art is a place of speculation. It’s a place where we can figure things out, and I wouldn’t want that suppressed in order not to offend,” he said.


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