Civil Liberties

Note To Artists on College Campuses: Don't Be Controversial or Insensitive, Especially Unintentionally


From the campus of Miami University of Ohio comes the latest instance of administrative shutown of expression and dialogue in the very place that is supposed to facilitate the same. The problem this time? An art project that some say called to mind the Jena 6 in Louisiana.

Miami University's Associated Student Government (ASG) passed a resolution in an emergency session Thursday night to respond to an artistic display found on Western Campus Tuesday that included a tire swing and seven noose-like ropes.

According to the three student artists involved, the piece, titled "Growing Up," was a class project, pre-approved by their professor and another member of the art department staff and was intended to signify the death of childhood-death being signified by the noose-like ropes and childhood signified by the tire swing.

A representative for the artists attended the emergency session to explain the thought process behind the display.

"It was never intended to be a racial statement," said the representative. "It was a class project for an Intro to Art class. The artists even changed the knots to scaffolding knots to signify death in its purest form without creating an actual noose."

He added that the seven noose-like ropes were meant to signify seven decades or 70 years, the lifespan of an average man. They were hung in a way that they could only clearly be seen if sitting on the tire swing.

The display was exhibited in a tree on Patterson Avenue across from the Art Building from 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesday, until a student called the police at 5:13 p.m. alerting them to the display….

"This was good for us," said Jens Sutmöller, student body president. "In the end I think we accomplished three things. The first was student senate and leaders now have a better understanding of the situation. Then we realized there was an opportunity and responsibility to continue discussing the concepts as a campus and community. And third we are presenting as an organization that racism and bigotry do exist on campuses and we need to improve upon that climate."…

Now the students involved are waiting while President Hodge and other university officials decide just what measures will be taken to penalize them.

"Nothing conclusive has been decided as of yet," Mosley-Howard said. "We are conducting an investigation separate from the Miami Police Department which is common in these situations. In any situation that involves both the police and the university, there could be two separate penalties."…

President Hodge said Wednesday that he feels that careful consideration should have been taken when creating a project like this.

"Given all that's happened, especially with the events in Jena, this was highly inappropriate and this is where I hold them accountable," he said. "These are symbols that are known to project hatred and they should've known better."

James Lentini, dean of the School of Fine Arts, said he is looking into the approval process behind the art project.

"It's important for us to have good censors or radars for what is appropriate and where it is placed," he said….

Assistant Director of Educational Placement Gerald Yearwood agreed, saying free expression can be offensive without context.

"I didn't think that it was racially motivated, but given the magnitude that has taken place in this country relative to the hangman's noose, you would think that whoever put it together would have some information and back off," he said. "Certain things touch a nerve. Obviously, there was an impact and there are going to
be reactions."…

The students issued a formal statement to the Police Department and President Hodge apologizing for any offense caused.

"We know that many are offended and we want everyone to know we're sorry for any offense," one student said. "It was never intended to be that way. It was never our goal to be insensitive. We send our sincerest apologies and we hope that the community forgives us."…

"We are a family and we need to handle this as a family," said Mathew Boaz, director of the Office of Equity and Equal Opportunity. "We cannot let external rifts hinder us. We need to resolve this and move forward together. We have a great leader here and we need to give him a chance to collect the information he needs to move us forward."

Full story here.

I didn't see the display and the picture doesn't give a particularly good sense of it, but I find it really screwed up that the first order of business is to take down something and force the artists to apologize the way they did.

This especially doesn't make sense because even if the display was intended to call to mind Jena, wouldn't most people immediately assume it was a comment on that, not an endorsement?

If colleges and universities really supported free and open debate, wouldn't they use these sorts of things as "teachable moments" where all sorts of viewpoints about art and its role in society would be debated? Rather than being shut down with extreme prejudice?

And I am the only one who thinks the "great leader" talk at the end of the block quote above sounds like it's been translated from North Korean?

Back in 2000, Alan Kors looked at the groupthink pushed during college orientations.