Table of Contents

Censorship of Art on Campus Is Also Unlearning Liberty

In 2002, someone at the Department of Justice had curtains draped strategically over an aluminum statue in the Great Hall of the Department of Justice to cover up Lady Justice’s exposed breast. Whether fairly or not, John Ashcroft, then Attorney General, was widely mocked for this move.

The August 13 edition of the Dartmouth Review has an article by James G. Rascoff that discusses Dartmouth College’s decision to cover another work of art from the 1930s. And yesterday, the Associated Press’s Maria Sudekum reported that the Medical Center at the University of Kansas has closed an art exhibit in its library arguably because of controversial content. Although the schools’ reasoning may be more sophisticated than the desire in the Justice Department to keep the background of its press conferences family-friendly, the end result is more examples of campus censorship stifling discussion and learning.

The Dartmouth story begins with the college’s decision to invite Mexican artist José Clemente Orozco to paint a mural for its library. From 1932–34, Orozco created a 20-panel mural titled The Epic of American Civilization. The Hood Museum has published a brochure (PDF) with the full history of the work’s creation and an explanation of its meaning. Images of the panels can be found here. The mural cycle was recently designated a national historic landmark. Like many great works of art, it was controversial in its day. As Rascoff explains:

The Epic of American Civilization offers a radically revised narrative of American history, in which European migration to the Americas leads to an apocalyptic modern era characterized by destruction and greed. Orozco was a practitioner of social realism, and the mural showcases his opinions on capitalism, higher education, Christianity, and other aspects of American society he found unsavory.

Not surprisingly, some alumni objected to the mural, including Walter Beach Humphrey, a prominent illustrator who at one point shared a studio with Norman Rockwell. To placate the critics, the trustees commissioned Humphrey to paint a four-panel mural in a basement pub. His work illustrated a Dartmouth drinking song by poet Richard Hovey that parodied the founding of Dartmouth College by Eleazar Wheelock. Known as the Hovey mural, it depicts Wheelock setting off into the wilderness with 500 gallons of rum, meeting up with a Native American “big chief,” whereupon the two of them founded Dartmouth College, where “the whole curriculum/Was five hundred gallons of New England rum.” The mural itself depicts numerous stereotypes about Native Americans (peace pipes and half-naked women) that were typical of the late 1930s.

In 1979, Dartmouth College closed the room in which the “Hovey mural” is located due to concerns about the stereotypical depiction of Native Americans and women. In 1983, the mural was covered up. Now, according to Rascoff, “the Hood Museum of Art provides a didactic program on the mural, and the room that houses it is opened periodically for classes that have discussed the mural in an academic context.” Rascoff himself is one of the “few students that even knows the mural exists,” having been allowed to see it as part of a seminar in Native American studies. The college, however, does not allow unchaperoned viewing.

Nor, apparently, is Dartmouth alone among universities in feeling obligated literally to cover up controversial art. MIT’s Tech Online reports that the school renovated a dorm over the summer, painting over a student mural because the images “contained alcohol-related and ‘offensive’ images, according to Senior Associate Dean for Student Life Henry Humphreys.” While MIT went after student art, the Medical Center at the University of Kansas has closed a show of paintings by local artist Tom Gregg titled “Tom Gregg: Unsold – Grenades, Cute Animals and Bad Apples.” In a letter to the KU Board of Regents, the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri charge that the library’s incoming interim director, Vince Loffredo, discontinued the long-standing program featuring the work of local artists in the library because, according to Loffredo, “the artwork did not support the campus’ ‘core mission.’” As NCAC and the ACLU chapter explain, that rationale is deeply troubling:

Dr. Loffredo’s actions as an administrator at a public university raise serious First Amendment concerns. The explanation that the artwork is somehow not in line with the campus’ “core mission” is vague and subjective, and as a result opens the door for arbitrary censorship. The fact that a public official may not like a work of art or might disagree with the viewpoint expressed in it is no grounds for him to censor that work.

Besides being constitutionally suspect, the decision to close a show because of its content violates well-established principles of academic freedom and displays disregard for the core mission of an educational institution to advance knowledge, promote the exploration of ideas, and train a new generation of informed citizens and competent leaders by exposing them to a wide diversity of views.

A university covering up art (Dartmouth) or taking it down (University of Kansas) is particularly unfortunate because these institutions are supposed to be dedicated to learning and inquiry. I am no art critic, but the reporting on these stories has not suggested that any of the censored works lacked artistic value. Instead, they made some people feel uncomfortable or offended. But, as the ACLU and NCAC put it so eloquently, that is not an excuse to censor.

If you don’t agree with me, consider this. What would have happened if the president of Dartmouth had given in to the complaints of alumni in 1934 and covered up Orozco’s masterpiece? The world may well have been deprived of a work that is now considered a national historic landmark. Is there another great work of art somewhere near the University of Kansas Medical Center? If Loffredo has his way, we may never know; he is reportedly ending the library’s tradition of displaying the work of local artists. Can a mural that depicts Native Americans and women as caricatures still have artistic value? A painting of a grenade? That seems at least worthy of debate. As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff has chronicled in his book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, colleges and universities betray their fundamental purpose when they suppress discussion of challenging questions—or, in this case, literally cover them up.

Recent Articles

FIRE’s award-winning Newsdesk covers the free speech news you need to stay informed.