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Mary Baldwin University learns the wrong lessons from recent art controversy

This summer, FIRE released “One Man’s Vulgarity,” a report chronicling nearly two decades of art censorship on U.S. college campuses. A significant portion of the report is dedicated to discussing cases where artwork addressing controversial issues, like racism or police brutality, was censored because it was perceived as supporting the ideology it intended to refute. A new case of art censorship at Mary Baldwin University fits this trend.

On Nov. 5, the exhibit “RELEVANT / SCRAP,” which featured images of Confederate monuments mixed with other materials and an interactive display, opened at Mary Baldwin, a private university in Virginia. Within two days, the university took it down.

Student opposition, led by an anonymous group called Concerned Students of Mary Baldwin, centered on the work’s perceived racism — but the artists responsible for the work say it’s been misinterpreted.

Jere Williams and Pam Sutherland say “RELEVANT / SCRAP” reimagines Confederate monuments and acknowledges the sordid history they represent, rather than celebrates it. In their statement accepting the censorship of their work and asserting that it was widely misunderstood, Williams and Sutherland wrote that they “are neither in agreement with the ideology of the Lost Cause nor racist” and intended to “use art making processes to create an aesthetic experience of the problematic challenge of reimagining the spaces where the monuments to the Confederacy currently reside in Richmond.”

Mary Baldwin plans to hold “a series of listening sessions organized by the Office of Inclusive Excellence” for students to share their thoughts on the pieces this week, and has promised that the university “will review its policies and procedures for selecting and booking cultural exhibitions on campus, including facilitating student input.”

Unfortunately, Mary Baldwin’s decision to quell concerns about the artwork by removing it sends the wrong message about what role artistic expression plays and how universities can foster productive conversations. That artwork can generate a negative response is unsurprising — sometimes, that’s the intention — and students are well within their rights to dislike the message artwork sends or the methods the artist uses to send it. Indeed, debates about how artists can best convey their messages can be a worthwhile part of the conversation surrounding artistic expression.

Mary Baldwin would better serve its students by opening up more forums where community members can weigh in, like the university’s planned listening sessions or a call for more artwork, rather than closing down exhibits, as it has done here.

Jonathan Friedman, project director for campus free speech at PEN America, shared similar concerns in a comment to Inside Higher Ed. Friedman wrote:

Teaching students that censorship is the solution to provocative material is a dangerous lesson, one which should be of grave concern to the artistic and academic communities alike. It not only goes against the spirit of hallowed artistic traditions, but also creates a wide opening for others to call for censorship in universities and museums in response to content that provokes or offends, no matter the grounds.

Mary Baldwin’s decision is the most recent in a long line of universities choosing to hide controversial artwork rather than take a stance in favor of artistic freedom. In July, University of Kansas officials responded to demands from Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach that they remove an American flag collage by — you guessed it — acquiescing to them. (For a fuller list of campus art censorship cases, read “One Man’s Vulgarity.”)

FIRE’s report concludes: “Encountering artwork that shocks or offends us may sometimes be an unpleasant experience, but having officials determine which artistic expression we may or may not encounter is a far worse outcome.” This is a lesson Mary Baldwin, the University of Kansas, and other institutions making the same mistake still need to learn.

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