Frequently Asked Questions

 

Have a question you’d like to ask? Please ask me (respectfully), and I’ll post it here.

 

Why would moving a piece of artwork somewhere less public (like in Sleepwalker) be seen as a form of censorship?

Sleepwalker is a site-specific sculpture, meaning that it was designed to be seen in a specific location. I believe that the artist, Tony Matelli, intended for the location to add to the strangeness of the “sleepwalker’s” stumblings. That the sculpture was first unveiled during wintertime makes the outdoor placement all the more engaging. As such, moving it would change both the exposure (pun intended) and the meaning of the piece entirely.

Sleepwalker was first displayed on a largely-residential women’s college (Wellesley College, in conjunction with his show at the Davis Museum). Here, it received huge controversy, stemming from an anonymous online petition. I think that the curator was right to thoughtfully reframe and decline this request, and I expect the discussions on campus were substantive.

I think the more interesting question is: what exactly was troubling about the sculpture for some? Would the objections have been placed if he had been wearing pajamas? In the online petition, he was described as a “nearly naked man.” Do we then assume that it was his “nakedness” (in saggy white briefs) that made him objectionable? Are all men without full bodily covering to be seen as potential offenders? I believe it is an art’s job to ask such interesting and provocative questions.

Since its initial controversy, the sculpture has been moved to a highly-trafficked location at the High Line in NYC, where so far it’s been a non-issue. Why is that? Sleepwalker is the same highly-realistic depiction of a sleepwalking man. He is inert; his eyes are closed, he is wandering. Yet he is now in a much more visible and public location. What changed?

 

Why shouldn’t the government have a say in what kind of art it is willing to fund?

The government sets its priorities for funding based on broad principles and stated needs. In principle, we believe that freedom of expression is important to our democracy and to the advancement of knowledge; it is why it’s our First Amendment. We don’t have to like it, but we both allow for it and provide minuscule funding for it.

Having researched the issue extensively, I know that it is easy to say “But why this?” about a particular piece of art. People say that all the time about art—regardless of whether it (or its institutional host) was funded. But in principle, we believe our culture is stronger with a measure of support for the arts. In the United States, this amount of funding is so negligible, it is virtually meaningless (eg. compare the cost of “misc” in any other line item budget to that for support for institutions like The Met or the local ballet and you’ll see what I mean).

We also know that even this negligible level of funding has huge, positive economic values for local economies. So, if you’re looking to create jobs or revitalize cities, fund the arts!

 

Couldn’t those artists get their funding elsewhere?

Yes, they can and they do. But having some form of “known” support is critical for base stability and/or credibility to a new or unknown venture. The question remains: are we a democracy that believes in advancing cultural arts / dialogue / growth? If so, we should fund it, even if only in meager amounts. If you believe we should not advance culture arts / dialogue / growth, please take a moment to consider how this position is striking similar to those of non-democratic countries like North Korea.

 

I don’t see why trigger warnings are harmful. Isn’t this a way to be sensitive to others’ needs?

Creating a respectful learning environment is extremely important for effective learning. However, declaring a “trigger warning” before showing something (anything) not only fails to accomplish this, it often creates another set of problems. What exactly merits this kind of prejudicial framing? What doesn’t? Our culture is far too varied and complex to reduce meaning down to “simple guidelines,” especially if they are mandated or expected in the classroom. There, it is outright dangerous.

The Chronicle of Higher Education published a critique of trigger warnings that was authored by seven humanities professors. One of their points was that “[f]aculty of color, queer faculty, and faculty teaching in gender/sexuality studies, critical race theory, and the visual/performing arts will likely be disproportionate targets of student complaints about triggering, as the material these faculty members teach is by its nature unsettling and often feels immediate.”

In my own experience, I know this to be true, as several colleagues, working as adjunct faculty in various programs, have told me they had received complaints from students (and later, administrators) after showing queer and/or “dated” works in class. Rachel Rosenthal, an artist who famously declined NEA funding after the “decency clause” was inserted into NEA artist contracts, once told me that the construction of criteria that deems some works acceptable, and others not, will always end up serving the hegemony.