Arts & First Amendment horizon

Friday, January 31, 2003

Works of art displayed in public settings under public auspices may draw more than critical notice — they may run into censorship, as in several recent incidents.

On March 11, 2008, a lawsuit against Penn State University involving an art exhibit was dismissed after the two parties agreed to a settlement. Joshua Stulman’s student exhibit, “Portraits of Terror,” was canceled by Penn State School of Visual Arts faculty members in April 2006. The series of 10 paintings and drawings, according to Stulman's promotional material, “dealt with the issue of terrorism, generally, in the Middle East and, more specifically, Arab-Palestinian terrorism directed towards the State of Israel and its people.”

According to an e-mail sent to Stulman notifying him of the cancellation, the decision was based on a review of Penn State’s “Policy AD42: Statement on Nondiscrimination and Harassment, and Penn State’s Zero Tolerance Policy for Hate” and because it did not promote cultural diversity or opportunity for democratic dialogue. A week after the cancellation, Stuhlman received an e-mail from Charles Garoian, director and professor of art education, apologizing for wrongly canceling the exhibit. Despite the apology and a later offer to show his exhibit, Stuhlman, citing other issues, sued.

In another case of art censorship, an artist from San Clemente, Calif., discovered in January 2008 that the 10-piece ceramic exhibit he submitted as part of a group show at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif., was displayed with two of the pieces missing. The coordinator of the airport’s art program thought that the two missing pieces “looked like dead people,” so he decided to not hang them because he said they were not appropriate for the setting. The artist demanded that his exhibit be taken down and returned, which it was.

In February, 2008, three pieces featuring nudity were removed from an art exhibit in Ventura County, Calif.’s government Hall of Administration. The pieces were deemed inappropriate for the location by the president of the Ventura County Arts Council, who received a number of complaints about them.

An exhibit featuring the artist as a character in a video game was pulled in March 2008 by administrators at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. The artwork, “Virtual Jihadi,” shows the artist as a suicide bomber on a mission to assassinate President Bush. The artist had hacked the video game and put himself in as the main character. The game, “Quest for Bush,” is an al-Qaida-produced response to a U.S. produced game, “Quest for Saddam,” which allowed players to hunt down and kill the former Iraqi president.

According to the exhibit promotion, “This work is meant to bring attention to the vulnerability of Iraqi civilians to the travesties of the current war and racist generalizations and stereotypes as exhibited in games such as Quest for Saddam; along with vulnerability to recruitment by violent groups like Al Qaeda because of the U.S.’s failed strategy in securing Iraq.”