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Letter to WCP editor: UTM art exhibit

Letter to WCP editor: UTM art exhibit

Posted: Thursday, December 4, 2008 2:04 pm
By: By David Gibson, Martin

To the Editor, The University of Tennessee at Martin recently exhibited some artwork from a class in contemporary art, which many members of the community, including this writer, found offensive. One exhibit, “Wheel of Life,” featured a rodent activity wheel resting in the midst of torn pages from the Holy Bible. Another, “Between Iraq and a Hard Place,” employed a shredded United States flag, fallen toy American soldiers, a burned copy of the Constitution of the United States and painted scenes in the background depicting violence against this country. According to WPSD, a local NBC affiliate, the Chair of UTM’s Art Department defended the exhibit by saying “although these two exhibits may offend some, they are certainly entitled to do under our Constitution.” Certainly, the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America protects these students’ right to exercise their freedom of expression. But I have to wonder whether the young people appreciate the irony here, whether they understand that the First Amendment freedoms they and all Americans enjoy as birthrights are not part of the natural order of things but are purchased by the sacrifices of men and women who, overwhelmingly, hold our nation’s flag, our nation’s constitution and above all, the holy writings of our Judeo-Christian tradition most dear. To us these are sacred symbols and when they shred, burn and defile them, they knowingly or unknowingly mock us. No matter what messages the students may have wanted to communicate, we cannot get beyond the defilement of our cherished symbols and see only disrespect and hatred for us, for our traditions and for everything we believe in. Was this their intention? It may have been. I want to believe differently, however. I want to believe these young people strove to be provocative, but not inflammatory. More mundanely, I want to believe they tried to measure up to their professor’s expectations as they perceived them so as to earn a good grade in an art class. I want to believe they acted out of ignorance. Regardless of their motivation, it is a pity that these students were not better served by their professor. They missed out on an important lesson, namely, it is possible to communicate artistically and even protest or be provocative without being hateful toward anyone. I would love to sit down with them and discuss the social psychological significance of iconic symbols both religious and secular. I do not believe any UTM administrator has commented publicly on this incident to date. As previously stated, the Chair of UTM’s Art Department says the exhibits are entitled to offend under our constitution. According to our local NBC affiliate, a University spokesperson said only that the controversial exhibits had been removed but removed according to schedule and not because of community protest. The University had no formal legal grounds, perhaps, for censoring the offending artwork. In point of fact, however, professors, support staff and those in leadership positions are expected to exercise good judgment, sensitivity to community standards and discretion in the performance of their duties. Hypothetically, does anyone believe the exhibition of art viewed as offensive by a racial, ethnic or religious minority would have been defended “In your face” fashion on the grounds of constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of expression? Can you say hypocrisy? David A. Gibson Martin WCP 12.02.08

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