Under pressure from the Catholic League and the local community, four works in the exhibition “Pat Payne: A look at Violence in Religious and Sexual Imagery” (February 8 – March 29, 2002) at the Santa Fe Community College Gallery were moved to a professor’s office.
Pat Payne‘s work blends sexual bondage photos with violent imagery found in religious (specifically Catholic) painting. According to the artist, these images are not intended “to shock or offend, but to try to come to a better understanding of the concepts/perceptions of spirituality and sexuality, acceptable and unacceptable behaviors and images, veneration, arousal, morality, and objectification.”
There are frequent controversies over whether moving a work to a different location constitutes censorship. The answer has to take into account the reason a work has been moved and the location to which it was moved. If a work is moved solely because of its content or the viewpoint it expresses to a location where access to it is limited, we do have a suggestion of censorship. In the case of Pat Payne’s exhibit the work was moved because of the ideas it expressed to a location that is not part of the Gallery. People coming to see the show in the Gallery would not even know that they need to embark on a search for a professor’s office in order to see four of the pieces. That radically limits access to the work.
While we applaud SFCC’s declared interest in offering people an avenue through which to share their concerns, as well as their stated respect for academic freedom, the removal of the work to a spot unrelated to the gallery. It is an unfortunate concession to the pressure to censor disagreeable ideas. In the long run, such a concession will not serve the College well: if a concession is made to the objections of one group, it would be hard not to make a concession again and again to accommodate everybody who disagrees with the ideas expressed in a play, a sculpture, a film, or painting shown on campus. Controversy, in itself, is not a reason to censor. It is precisely to protect controversial expression that the First Amendment exists, and, on a college campus, the First Amendment has special weight. Academic freedom entails that in the educational process students will encounter a wide diversity of ideas, not all of which are popular, and a large number of which are controversial.
The pressures of a vocal group of community members could be hard to handle. But universities across the country face community pressures and even legal challenges from community members all the time (a recent high-profile case concerned the University of Indiana at Bloomington and a production of Corpus Christi). Unless the universities cede to pressure and censor themselves, academic freedom and the First Amendment always win.