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Free Speech and (Offensive) Art

January 13, 2012

A fairly typical art school event: Students submit two- or three-dimensional artwork to fulfill a class assignment, or for a school- or department-wide exhibition. Perhaps less typical: At a West Coast independent art college some years back, with no advance warning, a student killed a chicken in class as his project. As one might guess, this was not a class in animal slaughtering, and the school did its best not to criminalize the student’s action (“Why make a big deal out of it?” the school’s then-president said), but some faculty members did give the student a talking-to.

Tensions over the nature of classroom content can occur in many disciplines, and professors in science, business or humanities courses get little if any training, too, in how to handle difficult situations. But the problem is arguably greatest of all in the fine arts, where a culture of epater la bourgeoisie – shock the middle-class, afflict the comfortable – has existed for 150 or so years. Art is supposed to get people to see the world in new and different ways, but what if that awakening is rude or employs violence or obscenity or blasphemy or something else that may cause offense? It may be assumed that art schools and universities are bastions of free speech and experimentation but, Lord, not in my classroom! 

Art instructors tend to plan for the typical, preparing lessons and critiques, but they sometimes get the atypical, because art students occasionally look to shock/provoke/offend/transgress. Few enough of these instructors receive any pedagogical training, and the little they do learn concerns classroom management, organizing a syllabus, how to grade students and lead discussions. This essay aims to explore the issues that can arise and to suggest ways that institutions and instructors can be better prepared for what can unfold in art classrooms.

In the thick student and faculty handbook at the Maryland Institute College of Art, for example, there are pages devoted to limiting certain types of art speech – graffiti art on public property is “vandalism,” animals must be treated “in a humane manner when used in/as art work,” no setting off fireworks, displaying or using weapons, possession or use of illegal drugs or alcohol, no exposing others to “blood, urine, feces, chemicals or other hazardous materials” – and the prohibitions were recently expanded to include the more nebulous “works that involve physical/emotional stress (potential or real) to the artist and/or audience.”

“You think you’ve covered all the bases and then someone comes up with something new,” said Ray Allen, the college’s provost. One student’s art project was to attach a commentary on sexual abuse by priests on a nearby church door, which led to another addition to the handbook, prohibiting the placement of “artwork” “on Corpus Christi Church or church property.”

The exposure to “blood, urine, feces…” section somewhat applies to the actions of the photography student who invited several men into the school so that she could take pictures of them at the moment of climax, but that prohibition covers only what Allen called the “ejaculants.” The fact that the student brought strange men onto school property was a separate matter. And, of course, where do you include a section on a student not locking himself in a box filled with snow (when he was finally pried out of the box, the student was unconscious and suffering from hypothermia)?

Walking a thin line between encouraging free artistic expression and what Ron Jones, president of the Memphis College of Art, calls “the rights of others not to be exposed to what they do not accept,” is a learned skill, and what one learns may apply only to a particular college, because each may have more or less tolerance of students with a desire to generate outrage. Artists, like so many others, are First Amendment absolutists when it comes to themselves, but in the context of a classroom or a college with a diverse student body or a publicly supported university where some state legislator may use a challenging art exhibit as the basis for a campaign to reduce governmental funding, they may question their moral footing.

At times, for example a student art project may involve, or suggest, violence, such as the performance piece staged at the University of California at Los Angeles in 2005 in which an MFA student pulled out of a bag what appeared to be a handgun, loaded it with a single bullet, spun the cylinder and aimed the pistol at his head, pulling the trigger. (The gun failed to discharge, and the student received a talking-to.) At other times, the issue is sexual content, such as the photograph of a male nude by a Savannah College of Art & Design student, which was removed by college administrators from the school’s Open Studio Exhibition in late 2010, because the image was “unacceptable” for a “family event.”

Politics in art also may make people uncomfortable, such as the pair of portraits of former President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney framed with actual American flags exhibited at the student gallery by a graduate student at California’s Laguna College of Art & Design in in 2010. “A staff member took offense and complained to the president and development director, who were initially opposed to showing this work,” said Perin Mahler, chair of the college’s Master of Fine Arts program. (After a considerable amount of debate, the portraits were permitted to stay in the show.)

Religion is no easier a subject, as the Brigham Young University alumnus Jon McNaughton found when his painting “One Nation Under God,” depicting Christ holding the U.S. constitution and standing among the nation’s founding fathers, was removed from an exhibition space at the BYU bookstore in the summer of 2010. (One faculty member complained that McNaughton’s artwork should not be displayed unless an alternative liberal painting was also hung, and one of the university’s vice presidents declared himself “uncomfortable” with the presence of “One Nation Under God.”)

There are no rules of the road to help art instructors and college administrators in this realm. History professors (I hope) would know that it would be reprehensible and illegal if a student in a Revolutionary War class brought in a musket and began firing it, but art faculty seem immobilized by the term “freedom of expression.” Maintaining standards and order is not reactionary ("the critics hated the impressionists, too!") but helps students learn larger lessons of propriety.

Throughout a long career, most college studio art instructors will have students who look to test limits of taste and propriety, and some faculty will have these students sooner than others. Some tricks of the trade of teaching are learned on the job, but instructors need to have a firm idea from day one not only about how to educate and guide their students, but how to explore their ideas and materials, “but also to understand that there is a responsibility that goes along with that freedom,” said Kevin Conlon, vice president of academic affairs at the Columbus College of Art and Design. “We have a cultural value at this school that respects tolerance and diversity, and artwork that borders on hate speech requires us as faculty to help students understand the context of what they’re doing.”

He recalled one student who produced a painting that was based on photographs from pornography magazines, “which I knew was going to make many of the women in the class uncomfortable. I sat down with this student and asked him, ‘Why are you doing this? What do you think the effect of these images will be on other people?’ He really hadn’t thought much about it and had nothing to say. I told him, ‘If you can come up with a reason for what you’re doing, we can go forward.’ ”

"Going forward” is a pretty vague concept, but there are ways that potentially offensive student (or faculty or non-faculty, for that matter) artwork may be exhibited in good conscience. There is usually more than one gallery space on campuses in which pieces may be displayed, some more open to the public than others, and school hallways also may be the site of temporary exhibits. Some exhibitions have advisory signs that warn prospective visitors of challenging content, giving them the choice – and making them party to the decision – not to see something. Finally, potentially offensive artwork may be edited out for reasons of space rather than content. Censorship (if we are allowed to use that word) may take place along a continuum.

One would assume that even the most novice instructor understands that cruelty to animals or humans should not be permitted and that use of bodily fluids or hazardous products creates safety issues that need to be checked, but that’s not a given. Schools look to hire young instructors, because they are expected to form strong connections to students to whom they are closer in age than older, more experienced teachers. “Very often, younger faculty pride themselves on getting their students excited about an art project, and they lose what you would think would be common sense,” Allen said. That photography student at the Maryland Institute College of Art received approval from her young faculty adviser for both allowing the men on campus and their production of semen (that instructor was later reprimanded by the school’s administration on both counts), and the instructor of the student who locked himself in a box of snow and was eventually pulled out unconscious “didn’t have the sense to call 911,” he noted. (Another talking-to.)

What to do about an artwork that is likely to produce strong reactions in those who experience it is a toss-up, which is why schools resort to the less accessible galleries or warning signs. When in doubt, according to William Barrett, executive director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, instructors should bring problems and situations to their department chairs in order to receive guidance and support, which may be necessary in the event that a student’s artwork becomes a matter of significant controversy. Talking-tos are O.K., but they tend to take place after the fact, whereas instructors need to be more alert to what might happen and be ready.

Solutions?

Student artwork that may seem in poor taste or just disgusting has often elicited solutions that are even less appetizing. Many school administrators and faculty will try to talk students out of exhibiting works that are likely to engender controversy. However, from the eyes of a 19- or 22-year-old, this meeting is unlikely to be seen as a value-free discussion; students will see it as a directive from the people who give them grades and on whom they may rely for recommendations to make some change or do something different. Faculty may be worried about their own job security, and administrators may be fearful of criticism from trustees or groups in the community or the press, and their part of the conversation is apt to show that stress.

Buffeted by the calls for almost limitless free speech and the potential black eye that negative publicity over controversial artwork may create, schools and universities tend to establish few rules about what is unacceptable, but many are also reluctant to fully support their students and faculty in the event of complaints over the content of the art. Younger faculty especially may worry about promotions and tenure if their classroom work results in controversy that requires administrators to defend artwork that strikes the public as insulting to one group or another or as offensive to common standards of good taste.

Some schools are offering “artist as citizen” courses that view the role art plays in the general society. Artists must learn to be responsible to the community and culture they live in – so goes the thinking. Again, something is very troubling about this development: Were the purpose of this type of class to broaden the student’s intellectual outlook, there would be no complaint; however, half of the curriculum for art students already consists of liberal arts courses, which should provide that broadening experience. If schools want to offer an elective on art controversies in history or 20th-century art controversies or even art controversies of the past decade, that would be perfectly valid. Where it moves from an analysis of art in the social milieu to how artists are to behave and think about their audience and be sensitive to group members of that audience (which I think these courses are really about), then the educational component is left behind and the political correctness element enters in. In fact, it becomes a course in political correctness.

Then, there is the question of whether some groups are more acceptable to attack or parody than others. One art instructor at a state university proudly spoke to me of her efforts defending to school administrators a woman student whose artwork included a painting of Virgin Mary using a crucifix as a sex toy. I asked her if she would have made as strong a case if the student were male and the imagery was arguably misogynistic or Neo-Nazi. “Absolutely not!” she said. Political correctness meets comparative victimhood.

Other solutions are a toss-up. Making artwork less accessible by exhibiting it in a less public, harder-to-find space skirts the boundaries of censorship, and parental advisory signs about the content of works at the front of an exhibit removes the surprise element from art.

Publicly supported institutions, such as universities, and particularly those located in rural and traditionally conservative areas of the country, are more likely (but not always) the focus of controversy than private and more urban colleges and art schools. Private schools are answerable only to their trustees and immediate community, whereas public institutions additionally may be condemned by citizens’ groups and legislators for spending taxpayer money on blasphemy, homoeroticism, pornography, racism or something else to which they object. Obscenity laws, for which "community standards" establish a legal basis of judgment, have not been applied to schools, and it certainly is not clear who or what the community is: other students, the entire campus, the entire campus plus the surrounding community? For a state-supported institution, the community may be the entire state, plus out-of-state students (and parents), alumni, businesses, foundations and government agencies that provide the operating budget of the school.

Better Solutions?

Students are generally young, generally inexperienced about the world, and it may make sense not to put their work up for display so much. That is not censorship but based on pedagogical theory: Student work should be seen as part of their artistic development, a process and not a product to be exhibited and defended. The effort to get students to rework their pieces and rethink their ideas would be less fraught with anxiety if exhibitions were not part of the issue.

The student’s world is often a circumscribed, cloistered one, existing almost completely within the confines of the school, and the intellectual parameters are defined by teachers and fellow students. The work that is created tends to reflect the culture of the school, because students have a very limited sense of what actually is exhibited and sold in art galleries. It is a good thing for students to be “out of the market” and in an educational setting where they may develop artistic skills, ideas and a sense of process, but they should not become out of touch with how the real world works. Were art students more out in the world – directed there through internships, externships, mentoring relationships with full-time artists, employment in the art world and visits to galleries and museums – they might quickly recognize that simply being provocative carries no weight in the arena that they look to enter.

Bio

Daniel Grant is the author of several books published by Allworth Press, including The Business of Being an Artist and The Fine Artist's Career Guide. He has taught at Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts and has a blog on the arts page of the Huffington Post.
 
 

 

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