Censorship at Penn State Update:


I emailed Penn State spokesman Bill Mahon, who was quoted as stating that the Joshua Stulman's exhibit on the culture of terrorism in the Palestinian territories (see linked post below) was not censored for content, but for other reasons, to explain what those other reasons were. Here is the response I received:

This story is dead wrong. The headline in the student newspaper is wrong.

The student may exhibit his class work in the space provided for class projects — as long as he has no sponsor.

There are other places all over campus that sponsored exhibits are displayed. This hallway outside of faculty offices is for class projects not commercial projects.

If the student puts up the exhibit without a sponsor funding the exhibit it is fine with the art faculty. He has been told this.

That has always been the intent for this hallway and that has not changed because of this exhibit or its content.

I hope he puts up the exhibit and the claims that art faculty want to censor his work end.

Thanks for asking.

This cached Google page shows that Mr. Stulman was scheduled to have an exhibit April 23-29 at the Patterson gallery, topic TBA. Mr. Stulman had previously exhibited there in February.

As near as I can tell, no one has denied that Mr. Stulman received an email stating that his exhibit may not go forward as scheduled, or that he was told that his exhibit was objectionable because it "did not promote cultural diversity" or "opportunities for democratic dialogue."

If I'm reading Mr. Mahon's email correctly, however, he is focusing on the fact that Hillel sponsored Mr. Stulman's exhibit the reception for Mr. Stulman's exhibit, to the tune of $75-$100, which somehow makes it a "commercial project" ineligible for display. However, according to the news story, "Stulman said he created his paintings on his own and he approached Penn State Hillel in February to help with advertising costs and food for the opening. He said the School of Visual Arts did not object to his earlier exhibit, also sponsored by Hillel. Tuvia Abramson, director of Penn State Hillel, said while Hillel sponsored the Stulman's exhibit, the group had nothing to do with his message or content." [Hillel's continuing interest in Stulman's work is documented here.]

So we have two possibilities here: (1) Penn State's art faculty has a rule against displaying any student work that has any sponsorship, including sponsorship by a recognized student organization such as Hillel. However, this rule is only applied when the faculty doesn't like the message the art is sending or (2) there is no such rule, or at least it wouldn't apply to a noncommercial, student organization such as Hillel, but pretending there is such a rule is a convenient excuse for what would otherwise look like pure heavy-handed enforcement of political correctness.

Needless to say, neither option reflects well on Penn State.

UPDATE: I found the Patterson Gallery guidelines for exhibits of student work online, and I don't see any rule prohibiting sponsorship.

FURTHER UPDATE: The Centre Daily Times has more:

Penn State spokesman Bill Mahon said in a separate e-mail that "the heart of this issue is the student never mentioned outside sponsorship" when the exhibit was approved.

But e-mails from Stulman to Garoian, obtained by the Centre Daily Times, show that Stulman wrote March 1 that "the opening is sponsored by Penn State Hillel" and offered contact information for Penn State's Hillel director, Tuvia Abramson. Hillel is a Jewish organization.

On April 11, Garoian e-mailed Abramson and Stulman and suggested the three get together to write a news release about the exhibit. Garoian and Abramson corresponded several more times without mentioning the sponsorship.

Hillel was providing $75 to $100 for a reception, Abramson said. Hillel did the same for a February exhibit, Abramson and Stulman said, and encountered no problems.

YET ONE MORE UPDATE: This is precious. Professor Charles Garoian, who is apparently responsible for refusing to allow Stulman's exhibit to be displayed, published (with a co-author) a series of three articles in 1996 in a journal called School Arts entitled "Censorship in the art classroom," with the final article in the trilogy called "Fighting censorship in the art classroom." The good professor wrote, prophetically:

Increasingly, attacks on learning are also coming from the political left with objections predicated on issues of political incorrectness as in the following: depictions of gender or race which are alleged offensive, such as female nudity; what are perceived as sexist or racist images or language; any kind of religious content; and other politically sensitive subjects. In many cases, teachers have been fired, disciplined or harassed in the wake of such attacks. In some cases, teachers have suffered damage to their careers and reputations.

One result of censorship is that teachers become increasingly reluctant to use materials in their classrooms that may raise difficult social questions, communicate values, portray potentially controversial subject matter or cause students to think about important issues. Is art education in danger of being reduced to the study and creation of decorative images devoid of values, social issues or other content deemed offensive to particular individuals or groups? [School Arts v95.n5 (Jan 1996)]

Compare this to the email Stulman received [not clear from exactly who] from Garoian stating that his exhibition would be canceled because it "did not promote cultural diversity" or "opportunities for democratic dialogue," and Garoian's reported statement that Stulman's controversial images did not mesh with the university's educational mission!

Even more precious, in Part II of the three-part series, Garoian criticized "self-censorship" at the Penn State School of Visual Arts:

An example of self-censorship recently occurred at the School of Visual Arts on the University Park campus of Penn State University. The undergraduate committee for student exhibits in the Patterson Gallery was asked to develop its own guidelines for exhibitions after several incidents in which the content of previous exhibitions was called into question by administrators and visitors to the gallery.

This committee, composed of students only, was given permission by the director of the School of Visual Arts to take full responsibility for the gallery space and to define its own policy. What the director did not anticipate was the committee's interpretation of the following rule: "Since the exhibit space is in a public hallway, and is the main entrance to the administration office, obscene or inappropriate work will not be permitted. Unlike a traditional gallery space, passersby have no choice in entering or avoiding this area. Every attempt will be made to accommodate all artwork, but sensitivity on your part is encouraged. Work that may fall into this category should be shown to the committee before it is displayed."

Upon reading the acceptance criteria developed by the students, the director and several faculty members advised students to reconsider this rule based on the premise that "a free exploration and expression of ideas and images in art must be preserved," which is a major purpose of art study in the school. Was the students' fear of possible future active censorship by the school's administration and faculty influential in their development of the language of the policy? Was it an acknowledgment of their intent to self-censor their own work? How do we judge between what might be regarded as such or just prudent decision-making?

And finally:

Yet, regardless of our individual beliefs, we rely on some basic principles to guide our search for solutions. As students enter our art classes, it is important that they be provided with a clear rationale regarding the purpose of art education in the schools. That rationale is to learn that works of are are not created in a void. Instead, the conditions of our culture influence the nature of images and ideas in works of art which, in turn, become part of the discourse that comprises the culture.

Members of the school community, including the students, ought to be clearly informed that in our classes they may experience strange, fantastic and controversial works of art - ones that are conceptually and emotionally challenging. Our intention as art teachers is not to shock nor to deny them their cultural values, attitudes and beliefs. They may not like what they experience, and it is not the art teacher's role to force them to do so. On the contrary, in a cultural democracy, students are taught to understand the purpose of such artworks despite the fact that they may not like or agree with them. Without such understanding, the knowledge of, appreciation and respect for our myriad differences may never be possible. [School Arts 95.n7 (March 1996)]