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When Artists Fear their Audience

books and culture

When Artists Fear their Audience

On campus, students now stand up for censorship. January 23, 2015

On December 5, 2014, a visiting faculty member at the University of Iowa mounted a sculpture in the school’s central campus yard, called the Pentacrest. Serhat Tanyolacar’s piece consisted of Ku Klux Klan vestments constructed from tar-on-paper silkscreen reproductions of newspaper articles about incidents of racial violence over the last century. The hood grew straight out of the robe, implying the absence of any figure inside, though its sleeves floated up as if occupied by arms. It seemed an ominous costume inhabited by a headless ghost. (It was, in fact, wearable; Tanyolacar had donned it in a 2010 protest march conducted after a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial was shot by a white supremacist.)

Tanyolacar intended the work as a statement against racial violence, but many in the university community didn’t take it that way. The Gazette quoted a junior at the university who said, “It almost seemed like getting spit in the face because we had a solidarity meeting in the exact same spot” regarding the non-indictment of police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. “I honestly just want to see racial competency, training and racial sensitivity in more abundance because Iowa brags of its diversity and we need to have that racial competence and training.”

Outpourings of anger on Twitter under the #BlackHawkeyes hashtag echoed such sentiments. Kayla Wheeler, a third-year doctoral student in the UI religious studies department, pleaded, “PLEASE DO NOT let this man turn our pain into profit.” On December 8, in response to a conversation with the artist in which he expressed contrition but not enough for her liking, Wheeler cried out, “The artist triggered me again. I’m hyperventilating. I literally can’t breathe right now . . . I’m being verbally attacked by this man. I’m shaking and crying. Please make it stop. Please help us. This isn’t right.” On December 9, Wheeler complained that Tanyolacar, a “white-passing (POC) man” had been credited for starting a dialogue about race with his sculpture. (POC stands for “person of color.” Tanyolacar is Turkish.) She thought that credit should go to black women, such as those involved with the University of Iowa’s NAACP chapter. “To give him credit for Black women’s work is not only silencing, but it is a form of VIOLENCE.”

Tanyolacar’s sculpture was on display for four hours. Police took it down at 10:30 a.m. on December 5th. One might consider that a rapid response, but UI president Sally Mason apologized for not removing it even faster. She issued a statement:

[Tanyolacar’s sculpture] was installed without permission on our campus. The effects of the display were felt throughout the Iowa City community. That display immediately caused Black students and community members to feel terrorized and to fear for their safety. The university’s response was not adequate, nor did that response occur soon enough. Our students tell us that this portrayal made them feel unwelcomed and that they lost trust in the University of Iowa. For failing to meet our goal of providing a respectful, all-inclusive, educational environment, the university apologizes.

Mason promised to “move quickly to form a committee of students and community members to advise me on options including strengthening cultural competency training and reviewing our implicit bias training.” She was backed up by a similar statement from UI’s Office of Strategic Communications: “There is no room for divisive, insensitive, and intolerant displays on this campus.”

Tanyolacar apologized to everyone within range but followed up with a public statement in which he expressed concern about the climate of expression. Days later, apparently made aware that the students had been party to an act of censorship, Wheeler tweeted a breathless “official statement”:

The Black Hawkeyes are dedicated to ensuring that Iowa City and Coralville, including the University of Iowa is a safe and inclusive space. We recognize that the removal of a 7 foot tall KKK effigy that terrorized students has sparked a national conversation about free speech and academic freedom. We hope that the university’s removal of our chalk artwork from the Pentacrest on Monday, which we hoped would spark even more conversations around anti-Black violence in the Americas without terrorizing students will also be included in that discussion.

Welcome to the solipsistic world of equality activism, in which the removal of sloganeering in chalk on the pavement, which might have been wiped away by routine maintenance, if rain didn’t get it first, is equated with the censorship of a faculty artist.

More broadly, the Iowa episode illustrates how progressive outrage has changed over the last few years. In the past, it more or less coexisted with bedrock civil liberties and artistic freedom; today, it more often supersedes and dismisses them. Earlier this year at Wellesley College, Tony Matelli mounted a sculpture entitled Sleepwalker on campus grounds, in view of his exhibition at the school’s Davis Museum. It depicted, with striking realism, a 5’9” male sleepwalking in his underwear. “The sculpture is of a man who is hopelessly lost and out of place,” Matelli explained to “What I was wanting to do with the work is just present that idea of misplacement, of loss and abandon and of being asleep at the wheel, really. It’s a feeling we all have often, and a feeling we relate to.”

No matter. An online petition demanding that the sculpture be removed garnered 1,000 signatures. “We welcome outdoor art that is provocative without being a site of unnecessary distress for members of the Wellesley College community,” wrote the petition’s authors. When museum director Lisa Fischman responded to the petition with a polite e-mail describing the sculpture as “profoundly passive,” she was damned with progressive incantations. “What does this statue do if not remind us of the fact of male privilege every single time we pass it, every single time we think about it, every single time we are forced to acknowledge its presence,” came one reply. “Your claim that Sleepwalker is passive is spoken in privilege and without regard to the many students on this campus who have faced and survived assault, racism, and many other forms of violent oppression,” came another.

The question of whether Tanyolacar was censored has devolved into a technical squabble about his failure to seek a proper display permit for the Pentacrest. But bureaucracy aside, audiences will never have a chance to decide on the merit of a work if artists become terrified of giving offense. It’s hard to imagine what kind of contemporary art will be acceptable in a hyper-politically correct world, but it seems clear that there will be less of it on public display.


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