Kennesaw State finally formally announced the reinstatement of Ruth Stanford’s “A Walk in the Valley” to the opening exhibition at the new Bernard A. Zuckerman Museum of Art. The piece, a commissioned work about Georgia author Corra Harris’ homestead, was taken down two weeks ago, shortly before the formal opening on Saturday, March 1st, upon orders by the University administration. The reason was the inclusion in the piece of a rather appalling historical relic: an article about lynching, written and published in 1899 by Harris. To complicate matters, Harris’s homestead was accepted by KSU as a gift in 2008. The acceptance was subject to controversy related to Harris’ racist views.
Offensive the article surely is – but it is also an indelible historical fact. As NCAC stated in its letter urging KSU to reinstate the work, “rather than becoming a reason to suppress the artwork, the inclusion of the article could and should have provided a much-needed opportunity to discuss the complexity of historical figures as well as an educational institution’s responsibility in accepting the custody of a property rife with reminders of a dark historical past.” Somewhat belatedly, the University has decided to do just that stating that, “Our intention is to use this entire experience as a learning and engagement opportunity for all of our stakeholders.”
Hopefully this will be a new and better start for the new Bernard A. Zuckerman Museum of Art. We wish the Museum and its talented staff many successful years of work on behalf of artistic freedom!
In the meantime, however, it looks like the fear of offense is becoming epidemic in academia. Just last month Wellesley College faced a massive petition – coming from the ranks of its smart, progressive students – to remove a sculpture of a man in underwear from public view, because it could trigger “thoughts regarding sexual assault for some members of our campus community.” The sculpture was kept, but the discourse of “triggering” is proliferating.
“Trigger warnings” are adopted on many Campuses, supposedly to warn students of content that could possibly bring up traumatic memories. With an unacceptably blurry line drawn between actual post-traumatic stress disorder and general discomfort with certain topics (race, sexuality, violence, etc.), it is more than likely that what a culture of trigger warnings will trigger is (self-)censorship. The fear in an army of adjunct professors or college administrations that they can be accused of insensitivity because the content in some class or exhibition has “triggered” disturbing thoughts, is likely to make them think twice before addressing sensitive subject matter.
A central issue here is the rarely questioned concept that a university campus should be a “safe space.” Surely, we all agree that discrimination has no place on campus, but what about the discussion of possibly offensive ideas? Or reading historical material which is blind to the sensitivities of the present? Or looking at films about genital mutilation? Or, for that matter, displaying relics of history that reveal some of our ancestors’ ugly prejudices? All of these could be very uncomfortable, but they are all part of the uncomfortable world we were all born in – perhaps today’s students will dramatically transform this world, but it won’t be by being shielded from anything and everything that may unsettle them.