Today, there was a meeting at Salem State University. The meeting was called, because students wanted to talk about the problem of racism. On the other hand, the Art Department wanted to discuss the issue of the First Amendment and censorship. At stake was an art piece in an exhibit entitled “The State of the Union.” Six hooded KKK members stare out of the darkness of an empty field. The figures are clearly apocalyptic. They are hollow figures you can see through, with no bodies in the robes.
I missed the meeting to discuss the issue, but talked with someone who was there for the event. I am told that the artist who painted this piece is an older white gentleman who had been in the military, has seen a number of troubling and disconcerting things in his life, and this painting was an expression of the things he fears about the state of America right now.
A Salem State student took a picture of this painting, posted it on Facebook. It has quickly gone viral, and most responses are saying that the picture is too offensive to hang in the art gallery.
The art department says that being able to hang this piece is a First Amendment right. The students appear to want to censor this work, and feel that the college is not allowing the campus to be a safe place. Students want art professors fired.
This reminds me of two things: 1) The Yale campus over a year ago, there was a controversy about Halloween costumes. Students felt that allowing a costume that was racially insensitive did not keep the campus safe. The faculty member who sent out a memo to the students giving them a heads up that offensive costumes could happen on Halloween was threatened by students and they wanted her and her husband fired. 2) Graffiti appeared on the wall of a storage unit in Clacton-on-Sea, UK. Birds on a wire were picketing against another bird. The signs they held said things like “migrant go home”, “Go back to Africa.” The piece was painted over, because it was a racist piece. It turned out that it was a social statement confronting racism, and the graffiti was the work of Banksy. Whoops! Someone just painted over a piece worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The white female student from Salem State who posted the picture says that white people need to shut up about racism and listen to the minority voices saying, “this is disgusting and white professors and students need to shut their privileged mouths and listen!” – unless of course, you are a young white female student, and then of course, you can presume you know what you are talking about.
Here is the paradoxical thing about this controversy: It is a microcosm of our nation in one small event, and it is simultaneously an example of the progressive movement collapsing in on itself. Here are two sides who are both holding up supposed virtues of the progressive movement: racial reconciliation, and first amendment freedoms. Yet, It appears someone is unwilling to listen in this situation. The student wants a professor fired because the professor laughed. The art department is saying that censorship is wrong, and has an example of art resembling Banksy’s Birds on a Wire social commentary on racism.
Who is right here? The art department, who believe that art should be used to provoke conversation, and make us think? or students who feel that they should be shielded and protected from controversial expressions of art and politics? I know what I think. How about you?