The Weekly Vista
If you’re subject to traumatization when someone puts reasonable barriers in place so that the public isn’t surprised by an art exhibit’s nudity and sexual images, don’t read this editorial.
Stop. Do not go any further.
We’re about to support University of Arkansas Chancellor Charles Robinson’s well-considered treatment of a graduate student’s art exhibit once it became clear the work pushed the limits of what should be openly displayed in a public building.
So, really, resist the urge to read on if that’s going to bother you.
Readers may have seen in the news pages how, on Feb. 23, Dr. Robinson opened a “Real Conversation with Chancellor Robinson” session designed to let the campus leader answer questions from students directly. If the goal was for the situation to “get real” real quick, organizers should count it as a success.
Once the session started, a gaggle of students and staff from the School of Art commandeered all the attention, arriving en masse and ready to challenge the university’s response to graduate student M’Shinda Abdullah-Broaddus’ thesis exhibition in the new Studio and Design Center. The exhibit includes nudity and images of sexual acts.
Now, if you’ve never seen a piece of art that offended you, you haven’t been looking at enough art. Art can depict beauty or ugliness. It can evoke joy and pain. It can be exhilarating or disturbing, or both. Nobody should go into an art exhibit expecting to see only works that make them feel happy and safe.
Still, even the most appreciative of art appreciators, we suspect, wouldn’t necessarily suggest the halls of an elementary school should be lined with Robert Mapplethorpe images.
So when university officials heard concerns that an exhibit in the newly opened Windgate Studio and Design Center on Martin Luther King Boulevard offended some who saw it, they did what they should: Look into the concerns. Here’s Robinson’s explanation:
“I was hearing from people who were offended, and it’s a public building,” Robinson said. “I wanted to give people a choice.”
The UA didn’t overreact and take the exhibition down. Rather, it changed some sight lines and provided warnings that sexually explicit imagery was included in the exhibit. They also prohibited minors from the exhibition area.
Abdullah-Broaddus called the response “deplorable.” He considers the changes punishment. He and other student artists at the meeting said what happened was traumatizing to them.
Robinson said the UA’s response was an attempt to respect the artist as well as the public’s right not to stumble into works in a public building that they’d find offensive.
“In this instance, the student art display happens to be located in a room with walls made of glass, and that is visible to an area of the building where members of the public (including minors) could be present, and that is also visible to passersby, so appropriate screening measures were undertaken without modifying the work or its location, and without preventing its availability to interested members of the School of Art community,” said Mark Rushing, associate vice chancellor for university relations.
To his credit, Robinson stood up for the decision.
He also said the incident was an opportunity to learn how a similar situation might be approached in the future.
Fair enough. A chancellor ought to listen to students’ concerns, as Robinson has shown a willingness to do since he took the post last year.
Outrage, faux and real, is in vogue these days. And if you’re outraged enough, one can become convinced nobody else’s perspective has any validity. The artist’s claims of censorship were dramatic, as were the claims of traumatization. The university didn’t shut down the exhibition. Rather, it applied reasonable limitations for a public building to ensure only the people intending to view images of nudity and sexual acts actually did.
The lesson the students can learn is that they don’t operate in a vacuum. And that provocative art provokes. Maybe they already know that.
Chancellor Robinson balanced his duties well.