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Guest Opinion: Don't suppress artistic expression at the UI

BY GUEST OPINION | DECEMBER 18, 2014 5:00 AM

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Dear President Sally Mason,

I mean to respond to your letter of apology pertaining to the artwork that was briefly displayed on the Pentacrest last week.

I wanted to reach out to you and express my deep disappointment and c0oncern over the fact that this infamous artwork was removed from the Pentacrest for the dubious reason of being based alone on its “content.” That the work was “forcefully removed” by police is particularly problematic and troublesome. Please allow me to explain.

Not so long ago, composers living in the Soviet Union in the early half of the 20th century faced executions for writing what government officials thought to be “anti-Soviet” music. It was enough to simply compose a syncopation (a presumed influence of Western jazz) or an insufficiently cheerful piece (a sign of not being happy with the regime) to find oneself arrested in the middle of the night. Today, we dismiss it as wrong: Is it that they believed in all the wrong things and we today believe in all the right things?

Art is not political speech, nor a religious document, or any other kind of verbalized speech or opinion. An artistic statement is different, for it does not contain a one-sided meaning or a singular interpretation. Art is an abstraction that prompts observers, listeners, and readers to think and challenge themselves. It does so by exciting them, by engaging, disturbing, angering, saddening, and otherwise intellectually and emotionally stimulating. Artistic means used, media and language chosen, written sounds — are only the building blocks which have little to do with the so-called “message,” as artistic meaning is in fact, abstract, complex, and multifaceted. Shall we prohibit public display of Goya’s paintings on the premises that they portray, and “therefore” encourage, violence?

Surely, the work displayed at the Pentacrest was disturbing, for it resonated with America’s grim past. Surely, it made people uncomfortable, because it is not a mass production, profit-driven Hollywood entertainment. So what, may I ask, happened to the long-standing notion that “art should disturb” or, as Bansky put it, “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”? Have we instead succumbed to the notion that quality of art is measured by public’s comfort with it and/or willingness to pay for it? I was fortunate to discuss the controversy of the Pentacrest work with a number of my colleagues, including those unaffiliated with the University of Iowa, all of whom are scholars and academicians. Not a single one has seen it as promoting racism. In fact, they thought it helped to challenge society in order to embrace just the opposite. Personally, I am against racist ideologies, and I would not support the author’s personal views (whom I don’t know) if he or she is racially motivated. Neither do I support witchcraft or obscenity portrayed in Goya’s work. But I would protest just as much if the complaints of those who choose to be disturbed by these works of art would result in these works being prohibited from public display, printed or performed. Art, by definition, is free. Artistic speech is not verbal speech: it has artistic license, for it has many, if not infinite, meanings that often contradict each other. If being disturbed is the criteria for what art should or should not be, then no true art shall ever be created.

I do believe that the decision to remove the work barely has an effect on what true artists would or would not create, whether they present their works in Carnegie Hall or are forced to hide them under their pillows. But I also believe that this decision has, on the contrary, long-term harmful effects on the community that you claim to protect, because it impedes on artists’ ability to make the world a better place by challenge their viewers, by making them think, by opening doors to the complexity of life, and to a realization that nothing is black or white, good or evil, and to raise questions, in particular — how far have we advanced from the time of grim ideologies.

Sincerely,

Leonid Iogansen,
UI Ph.D. candidate in musical composition


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