Censorship or a Mirage?

March 4, 2011

Allegations of censorship at the Pratt Institute have set the conservative blogosphere awhirl with what appeared to be a delicious reversal of the common narrative of artistic suppression: an art school, not a horde of prudish philistines, had banished the politically charged work of a student who wanted to use art to challenge prevailing liberal, not conservative, norms.

But the Pratt Institute says there has been no censorship and the burgeoning artist in question, a fifth-year student named Stephen DeQuattro, is scheduled to exhibit his work alongside three other students’ in April as planned.

"You could not have stunned me more by saying Stephen does not know that he is to be showing," says Donna Moran, chair of fine arts at Pratt.

"If that’s true, I haven’t been informed of it," says DeQuattro.

Moran says she thought the issue had been resolved last month. She had convened a meeting after word reached her that the three other students curating the exhibition did not want to work with DeQuattro, who had been added to the exhibition late due to a snafu involving paperwork.

Their conflict with the latecomer purportedly had to do with his work ethic, which they alleged to be poor. But DeQuattro says that was just a front. Their real problem, he claims, was with the politics of his work – which are not subtle.

One of DeQuattro’s pieces is a satirical cereal box. Called "Sustainable Liberalism in a Box" ("New Look, Same Failed Ideology!"), the piece mimics President Obama’s campaign logo and mocks liberals, Tea Party-style, with such lines as: "Fortunately, our goal of ending carbon emissions doesn’t conflict with our goal of ending global poverty, capitalism, and individual liberty world-wide!" On the side of the box, where one would normally find nutritional facts, there is an itemized account of the national debt and annual entitlement spending. On the back, a cartoon polar bear weeps and waxes apocalyptic.

Moran says she understood the conflict between DeQuattro and his fellow students to be an aesthetic one – the three original members of the group had an artistic vision for the exhibition that DeQuattro’s pieces did not fit. "They didn’t say they didn’t like his work," Moran says. "They said they didn’t think his work would work with their exhibition…. They were making an aesthetic argument that is not unusual, in the art world, to make."

Prior to the meeting, Moran had informed DeQuattro that, in light of the conflict, he could exhibit his work either at a later date or in a different space in a different building – one that had never been used as a gallery. But Moran says the meeting opened her eyes to what looked to her like a spat among students that did not warrant administrative intervention. "We decided … that all four students would show together," she says.

DeQuattro says the February meeting also opened his eyes, but to something entirely different. He says that comments one of his fellow students made at the meeting (which could not be independently verified) confirmed his suspicion that there was political animus behind what he sees as a thinly veiled attempt to exile his subversive cereal box to a back shelf.

The smoking gun, DeQuattro says, is an initial letter his fellow students sent to his professor weeks earlier, which he believes makes plain their political motivations for trying to get him kicked out of the exhibit. But DeQuattro says his professor, an adjunct named Dennis Masback, has refused to show him the letter. Masback did not respond to requests for comment. Mara McGinnis, a spokeswoman for the institute, described the incident as "a procedural issue within an academic department complicated by students taking offense at the work of a fellow student."

In either case, Moran and DeQuattro appear to have come away from the meeting with different impressions of what had been decided. Moran says the Pratt Institute expects that DeQuattro will show his cereal box, and several accompanying pieces, during the last week of April.

DeQuattro says he believes "Sustainable Liberalism in a Box" is in political exile. However, Masback, DeQuattro’s professor, wrote yesterday in an e-mail to Moran (which she forwarded to Inside Higher Ed) that DeQuattro had been "notified verbally and by email" that he is to show his work with the other students, and "said he was fine with that."

The New Criterion, an arts-oriented publication influential in neoconservative circles, has nonetheless taken up DeQuattro’s cause, running his version of the events in a blog post earlier this week and condemning the Pratt Institute for censorship. "You don’t have to be an art critic to see something tasteless going on at Pratt Institute," wrote author James Panero, an editor there.

Panero says he has corroborated DeQuattro’s claims through a subsequent investigation, and plans to reveal his updated findings on the New Criterion’s website and an op-ed in the New York Daily News (Update: The Daily News published Panero’s new piece on Friday morning). Meanwhile, his original story has accumulated dozens of comments, mostly from people expressing solidarity with DeQuattro. It has also been picked up by a number of blogs, including Big Government, a popular right-leaning site. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) says it is carefully following the case. Moran says she has been deluged with scolding e-mails.

But she maintains that the Pratt Institute never tried to censor "Sustainable Liberalism in a Box," and that as far as she knows it is going on display in April. "I have spent 10 years protecting my students from censorship, and now this thing comes up," Moran says. "None of this, for me, was about the content of his work."