When Art Offends (and Isn’t Understood)

Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, November 28, 2016

Garry D. Harley is no fan of President-elect Donald J. Trump. Harley, an artist from Lowell, Mass., says the rhetoric of Trump’s campaign reminded him again and again of efforts in history to demonize and subjugate black people in the United States and oppressed groups throughout history. So Harley was pleased to be asked by Salem State University to create works inspired by the election for an exhibit, “State of the Union.” The works were selected before Election Day and the exhibit opened just after.

Harley pulled no punches in his pieces, both of which are digital works based in part on historical photographs. For one, he took (with permission) a photograph of the journalist Anthony S. Karen and portrayed a group of members of the Ku Klux Klan, to show the kind of hate Harley believes has been given respectability by the Trump campaign.

For another, he worked with photographs of the roundup of Jews after the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943 to show the kind of inhumanity that can be unleashed by bigotry and hatred.

To Harley, portraying hatred is not the same thing as promoting hatred. But that message was lost at Salem State. Many students objected to his art (and other pieces in the show). The university announced last week it was closing the exhibit, pending discussions about how to go forward.

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Almost as soon as the exhibit opened, students (in particular but not exclusively black students) started complaining to Salem State officials and posting objections on Twitter. The Klan image attracted most of the criticism, but not all of it.

Two representative comments on Twitter: “Why did Salem state think it was OK to put a pic of the KKK in the art gallery during election time?? [Shaking my head],” and (with a photo of the Klan artwork) “Salem State thinks this is an acceptable piece of art to hang up in their public art gallery . . .”

Salem State first responded by trying to draw more attention to the artists’ intentions regarding their works. {snip}

The university also covered the glass doors to the gallery so that people wouldn’t happen to see an image without context. Further, the university posted a sign outside the gallery stating that the exhibit contained some work that could offend some viewers.

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The university then arranged for an open forum last week to discuss the exhibit. After the forum, at which students criticized the exhibit and talked about the pain it caused them, Salem State announced that it would close the exhibit for now and would consider further steps to take this week.

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