The recent closure of an art exhibit at Mary Baldwin University after accusations of racist content reminds us that art is both dangerous and valuable because it is open to interpretation.
The artists who created the "RELEVANT/SCRAP" exhibit, which repurposes images of Southern Confederate monuments, say that their exhibit is an acknowledgment that such monuments are painful reminders, and even renewals, of past oppressions. The students who objected to the exhibit say that the images do not interrogate the monuments’ racism -- they simply repeat it. In response to those objections, the exhibit was closed after two days, and all the art was removed.
We could argue endlessly about whether the artists or the students are right about how to understand the "RELEVANT/SCRAP" exhibit. Other viewers may have altogether different interpretations to offer. And, in fact, that kind of argument is, for many of us, the whole point of art: to spur a debate and discussion that outlasts our own immediate time. Consider, for example, the debates over whether Shakespeare’s Henry V is pro- or anti-war, or whether highly sexualized modern rock stars are feminist reclamations of power or recursions to the worst kind of objectification.
For many of us who value the intellectual and moral challenges of a rigorous liberal arts education, such debates with and among our students are not only a pleasure to engage in but also a sign that education is happening. In front of our eyes -- in our classrooms, college theaters, art galleries and concert spaces -- our students are seeing their conceptions of the world challenged. In response, they change their minds, refine their positions, learn to express their ideas more clearly or simply come to a better understanding of those who disagree with them.
Art, in its many forms, is an ideal spark for this kind of educational process. That is because art happens when our perceptions shift. Pointillist painters knew this and created paintings that were representational when seen from across the room but dissolved into dots when viewed close up. The Dada and Pop Art movements knew it when they elevated mundane objects like urinals and soup cans into creations that demanded time, attention and study. We come to works of art thinking that we are certain and that our ideas are clear. We leave understanding that the world is more complex than we have dreamed. Art demands that we re-examine what we think we know.
Margaret Atwood’s poem “You Fit Into Me” recreates that experience for her readers in 16 short words.
You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
By the time we have reached the poem’s last six words, all of the things we thought we knew in the first 10 have been challenged. And we have learned, perhaps, not to assume that we understand a work of art until we have explored it completely.
None of these educational moments can happen when the art that inspires such debates is hidden away.
We in higher education must find ways to negotiate between, on the one hand, our responsibilities to the sensibilities of students trying to find their way in our increasingly partisan and tense culture and, on the other, our responsibilities to the educational value of debate, discussion and disagreement. The use of abusive images and terminology is obviously not acceptable on campuses or any civilized institution. But the discussion of them must be. It is our job to find ways to ensure that such discussions can thrive and that they can be respectful, rich and productive.
That kind of discussion over campus conflicts is how we model civil engagement for our students -- and we mean that in both senses of the word “civil.” Such disagreements should be courteous, no matter how vigorous and deeply felt. And those disagreements, given space to allow us to learn from one another, help to make the society we share a better and stronger one. The absence of such engagement, in contrast, leads only to deeper and more permanent divisions.
Art on a campus is a laboratory for exploring differing points of view, for interrogating one’s own immediate response, and for learning how to form judgments about matters that require sustained interpretation. Denying our students that laboratory risks leaving them without the skills to navigate the morally complex terrain that they face now and that lies before them when they leave the university.
The college years have always been a time when students not only learn how to think but are also offered material about what to think and the time in which to do the thinking. Shutting down art that is intended to do all those things is no way to teach the vital art of disagreement.