Art institute draws claims of censorship

January 8, 2007

Simone Mitchell enrolled in the Art Institute of California at San Francisco hoping to catch attention with his visual art, but it was his writing, contained in an essay about racial stereotypes in video games, that catapulted a small in-class short story to the front lines of debate on the timeless "what is art?" question.

Mitchell wrote the 10-page spread for Mute/Off, a small magazine produced as part of a cultural studies class. The school pulled the magazine from circulation Dec. 6, hours after it was distributed, saying it hadn’t been approved by the administration.

Soon after the cultural studies teacher, Robert Ovetz, protested the administration’s actions, he was told not to come back for the next semester. Students and Ovetz say it was the latest in a pattern of recent censorship tactics, an allegation the school declines to discuss.

Mitchell’s essay, titled "Homicide," centers on three African American males who address each other in vulgar street slang and go on a rape and killing spree. At the story’s end, it’s revealed that they are characters in a video game played by three white suburban boys.

"There are so many stereotypes in games, of African Americans as thugs, for example," said Mitchell, a video game art and design student who is African American. "Video gamers are exposed to this kind of violence and offensive language all the time and need to think about what they are doing."

Ovetz, who has taught at the institute part time for three years, said that when his class reconvened the week after Mute/Off was published, students recounted how administrators had confiscated as many of the magazine’s 500 copies as they could find.

"The library was told they couldn’t even have a copy for its archives," Ovetz said. "I was shocked. How could this happen at an art institute?"

A spokeswoman for the institute, Gigi Gallinger-Dennis, said the administration withdrew the magazine because it contained "potentially defamatory journalism" and didn’t undergo the review process before distribution.

She wouldn’t confirm whether Mitchell’s essay caused the removal, as Ovetz contends. She said the institute’s concerns included the use of corporate insignias in an illustration within the magazine.

The work was a collage of corporate logos overlaid with the words "Organized Crime." Among the logos was that of Goldman Sachs, which in 2006 bought the 1,600-student, private for-profit school.

Ovetz sent e-mails protesting the administration’s action, and on Dec. 19 received an e-mail from Caren Meghreblian, dean of academic affairs, who did not mention Marshall by name but said one piece in the magazine was "racially offensive."

The e-mail also said that "unprofessional and ungrammatical work" in the magazine "does not represent the school well" and that the use of logos might be considered a copyright violation. It is the school’s mission, she wrote, to "guide and protect our students and our school."

The next day, Ovetz said, the institute told him not to return to teach a class in world conflict this winter.

Gallinger-Dennis wouldn’t comment on Ovetz’s departure but said, "No faculty nor students were given sanctions as a result of the content or circulation of this magazine."

The withdrawal of the magazine is the latest in a series of debates over artwork at the school.

Last quarter, at an exhibition on taboos, administrators removed a student photograph that showed a condom and a fluid on a plate with a piece of toast, an incident Gallinger-Dennis confirmed.

Steve Kick, a video game and art design student, said one of his sculptures inspired by space aliens was removed from a gallery after complaints that it looked like a vagina.

"At first I let it slide, but after hearing about other instances lately, I realized it’s a pattern," said Kick, 21. "I can see where [the administration] is coming from, but I still take issue with the censorship. That’s counterproductive to why we decided to attend an art school."

Gallinger-Dennis declined to comment, but defended school policies on prohibiting certain artwork if the administration deems it "not professional" or "offensive to others."

Media coverage of the incident has generated discussions at art schools around the country and captured the attention of free speech groups. Greg Lukianoff, president of the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said that although he’s used to hearing of censorship of students and faculty at public and private colleges, he’s surprised that an art institute would retract work created by students.

"Art is supposed to provoke and make people think, and as an art institute, especially in a city like San Francisco, they should seriously consider the commitment to their mission," said Lukianoff, whose nonprofit watchdog group monitors censorship issues. "If anywhere should encourage free speech, it should be an art institution."

Bill Barrett, executive director of the San Francisco-based Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, said that after what he’s seen in his 36 years of working with art students, Mitchell’s essay didn’t strike him as offensive.

"I think the institution shot itself in the foot," Barrett said. "Now they have all this negative attention on them when that is what they probably least wanted."

In an unusual coda to the dispute, the magazine will be distributed. Gallinger-Dennis said the magazine will be released within the next few weeks, as it has passed through all the review channels at the institution.

Kick said students may find closure in the magazine’s distribution, but he still feels that as an artist he needs to remain guarded when selecting subject matter at the institute.

Mitchell, who is transferring to study illustration at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco for unrelated reasons, said the debate has vividly demonstrated the power, and the responsibility, of art.

"It’s kind of lit my fire," said Mitchell. "The whole point of being an artist is to express yourself and hope it connects with others in some way, whether for good or bad."

Mitchell, who has wanted to be a comic book illustrator, now says he’d like to be a writer too.