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By censoring art, University of Southern Maine misses an opportunity

By May 11, 2018

Last month, the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn campus removed three oil paintings from their Atrium Art Gallery by local painter Bruce Habowski, despite objections from the exhibition’s curator, after it was discovered that Habowski is a convicted sex offender.

Habowski, of Waterville, Maine, was convicted of unlawful sexual contact in 1999. He was sentenced to 4 years in jail, but served a suspended sentence of 6 months. Habowski’s art was part of an exhibition featuring pieces that highlighted Maine’s industrial landscape.

The exhibition’s curator, Janice Moore, says the paintings were removed after a family member of Habowski’s victim called to complain. USM President Glenn Cummings has not commented on the incident, but the University’s communications department released a statement about the incident: “USM received a complaint from a member of the public. The complaint was not about the content of the art, but about the artist. After careful review, USM decided to remove his works from the exhibit.”

When Moore arrived at the exhibition on April 6, she found empty spaces on the wall where Habowski’s artwork was supposed to be.  

The University’s decision to remove the Habowski’s artwork was reportedly met with strong pushback from Moore, the exhibition’s curator, and the Portland chapter of the Union of Maine Visual Artists, which sent a letter to President Cummings last week objecting to the censorship. According to Lewiston and Auburn’s local paper, the Sun Journal, Moore said that she was not consulted by President Cummings before the paintings were taken down and learned of their removal from the exhibition only after the paintings had already been taken away. When Moore arrived at the exhibition on April 6, she found empty spaces on the wall where Habowski’s artwork was supposed to be.

Cummings’ decision to remove the paintings also sparked a statement from the National Coalition Against Censorship. The NCAC wrote that the university should not only leave Habowski’s work up, but also facilitate a broader conversation about art censorship:

Were universities to simply purge all material produced by those who have violated moral imperatives, there would not be much left to study and students would be deprived of important discussions about ethical conflict. Artists, even great artists, have exhibited many moral flaws: Caravaggio was a murderer, Picasso a serial sex abuser, Dostoevsky a virulent anti-semite.

The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) urges the University of Southern Maine to return the work to the show, provide opportunities for those upset by the work to be heard, and adopt clear free speech guidelines for future exhibitions. Any such guidelines should align with its mission as an educational institution, uphold curatorial and academic freedom, and demonstrate respect for the critical capacities of its student body and of the larger community USM serves.

As a public institution, USM not only should uphold freedom of expression, it also has a legal obligation to do so. The university’s Board of Trustees’ own policy on free speech and academic freedom, which is modeled after the Chicago Statement states:

Academic freedom is the freedom to present and discuss all relevant matters in and beyond the classroom, to explore all avenues of scholarship, research and creative expression, and to speak or write without any censorship, threat, restraint, or discipline by the University with regard to the pursuit of truth in the performance of one’s teaching, research, publishing or service obligation.

By overriding the decision of a museum curator, especially without prior consultation, USM betrays its commitment to freedom of expression and misses out on an important opportunity for discussion.

Polk State College made a similar mistake earlier this year, when the college chose to reject part-time faculty member Serhat Tanyolacar’s submission to a faculty art show because the gallery’s coordinator found it to be “too controversial to display at this time.” The piece, titled “Death of Innocence,” depicted several poets and writers juxtaposed with a number of pictures of President Donald Trump and other political figures engaging in sexual activity. But, as FIRE and the NCAC explained to Polk State in a letter on February 14, campuses should not be sanitized of artwork that has the potential to provoke difficult conversations.

Incidents like the one playing out at USM are not just quarantined to college campuses — they are part of a national conversation sparked by the #MeToo movement about how artists should be viewed in light of allegations of sexual misconduct or assault. They also provide striking examples of how divisive the issue can be.

Look at art galleries’ responses to the work of portraiture Chuck Close, for example. Just this year, in a striking move, Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art chose not to feature a planned exhibit of the Close’s work after allegations surfaced that he had harassed his portrait models. Reactions from curators varied, but not all galleries responded by pulling Close’s exhibit. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in my hometown of Philadelphia, took the opportunity to construct a gallery near Close’s exhibit that highlighted power imbalances and gender.

How curators at universities handled Close’s work may also shed light on the situation at USM. Jock Reynolds, the director of the Yale University Art Gallery, which features some of Close’ work, told the New York Times in January that there should be some separation between art and artist.

“How much are we going to do a litmus test on every artist in terms of how they behave?” Reynolds told the Times. “Pablo Picasso was one of the worst offenders of the 20th century in terms of his history with women. Are we going to take his work out of the galleries? At some point you have to ask yourself, is the art going to stand alone as something that needs to be seen?”

But what lines do we draw? Can we separate the work from the person behind it? Do we have an obligation to the victims of those artists’ crimes, who may fear that the artists’ work will eclipse their own experience or erase their abusers’ misdeeds?  

It’s been said that you should never Google your heroes. For better or for worse, we often uncritically listen to music produced by musicians who hold political opinions we find abhorrent and admire film or art from directors and artists who have done terrible things. But what lines do we draw? Can we separate the work from the person behind it? Do we have an obligation to the victims of those artists’ crimes, who may fear that the artists’ work will eclipse their own experience or erase their abusers’ misdeeds?

There are no easy solutions to these problems. Curators, artists, and advocates, and thinkers both on and off university campuses will be exploring how to respond to these issues for a long time. That said, one thing is quite evident: This is a conversation worth having, and censorship by university administrators does nothing to advance it.

Schools: University of Southern Maine