Tuesday, December 27, 2016
Depicting racism is racist?
This fall, Salem State University put out an open call for an exhibition titled “State of the Union.” Artists were asked to submit work that “addresses concerns and hopes for our future,” such as “environmental issues, social inequities, income inequality and education.”
Garry Harley, an artist in nearby Lowell, Massachusetts, saw the notice and knew immediately what to submit: two digital paintings, both inspired by campaign rhetoric he found frightening. One was based on a photo of Ku Klux Klan members in full, menacing regalia; the other, Warsaw Jews being rounded up during World War II.
Both were accepted.
The exhibition opened the day after Election Day. And when it did, Harley’s work — in particular the KKK picture — caused an uproar. Students complained that the art was insensitive, racist, upsetting, offensive.
The school held a tense public forum. Harley, who says he wanted to raise awareness but not offense, attended in the hopes of a “teaching moment.” He arrived with handouts: copies of Francisco Goya’s “The Third of May 1808” and Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” masterpieces that had committed traumatic events to canvas and, by extension, to public memory.
The next day, administrators sent an apology to the campus community and announced they were temporarily shuttering the exhibit. Then last week, after a second meeting, which Harley did not attend, the exhibit was reopened — with some modifications.
Among them: The KKK painting, and only that work, was curtained off, peep-show-style