Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Update on Thoughts on Art

In Thoughts on Art, Kelly asked: What is art? Kelly offered an answer to her own question partly in response to a story in the Yale Daily News. The story reported that a Yale art student inseminated herself "as often as possible" and used an abortifacient drug to abort multiple pregancies. The story provoked 320 on-line comments.

Dean of Yale College, Peter Salovey, issued a press release last week in which he noted that the student's project "bears no relation to what I consider appropriate for an undergraduate senior project.” The Dean of the Art School, Robert Storr, agreed: “This is not an acceptable project in a community where the consequences go beyond the individual who initiates the project and may even endanger that individual.” Two faculty members made "serious errors in judgment" and are subject to "appropriate action."

Inside Higher Ed interviewed art academics for a story running today about academic freedom in art. Nicola Courtwright, professor of art history at Amherst and president of the College Art Association notes that nixing a student's art project because of content would be "giving up your ethical responsibility to teach." An art professor should press students for the justification for their work. A professor should ask a student: '‘That kind of thing that you’re doing right now, it looks like it’s meant to be provocative, but what else is going on there? Is this really as deep as you could go with this subject? Are you stopping on a superficial level? Are you doing it to get a response?’”

John Carson, head of the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon, explained that art educators' responsibility is to encourage students to take risks. The limit isn't the subject matter: no subject should be taboo for art. Rather, the boundary of legitimate "art" depends on the artist's purpose. "I need justification from the artist," he said. “There are no hard and fast rules. You are looking at each case on an individual basis. You are looking at the sincerity of that artist.”

Apparently, if the artist's justification satisfies his or her professor, then the work is art, shielded from censorship as an act of legally-protected academic and expressive freedom. If the artist's justification fails, then no freedom. What kind of standard is that? How do art academics evaluate the artists' justification? How is this evaluation distinguishable from evaluating the social value of the content of the expression? The case of the Yale student's project is relatively easy for art academics. Jeanne Jaffe, chair of fine arts at University of the Arts in Philadelphia echoes Art Dean Storr's remark in Yale's press release. A project (such as the Yale student's) that causes harm to a "sentient being" is outside the range of protected expressive freedom.

Randy Martin, chair of art and public policy and director of the graduate program at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts adds this: “The question of reining [student artistic expression] in…cuts more deeply in an arts environment than it may in other situations because of how potent the cultural norms of freedom are, as they’re applied to artists.” Martin is right in one sense. We think of art as the ultimate venue for freedom of expression. But for student art projects, the stakes for expressive artistic freedom are relatively low compared to the political and economic contexts in which we lawyers struggle to balance collectively held values against individual freedom. What should be the limit of individual freedom? So far, art academics have dropped back to punt.

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