Sunday, November 29, 2009

PA Arts Sunday - Part Two - On "Censored on Campus?"

(Alaska Pacific University president Doug North's contribution to art)

Alaska Dispatch writer Maia Nolan has posted what may be the most estimable article in years on the reactions of two Alaska universities to the tests that come from provocative art productions. In the article, Nolan gives a fairly complete list of productions since 1992 that underwent some degree or another of criticism, hassle or censorship. In a sidebar alongside the article, Nolan lists:

Campus art controversies

Tony Hamilton, UAA student
Sculpture of a Ku Klux Klansman removed following an angry showdown between the artist, his professor and a group of African-American students and staff, some of whom threatened to remove the sculpture on their own if the university didn't. Professor Ken Gray removed eight other students' work at the same time, arguing that no one artwork should be singled out.

Rene Dolan Haag, APU
After receiving complaints about the content of three graphic photographs in an exhibition by Haag, APU trustees decided three photos would be removed on days when ACT's production of "Alice in Wonderland" was performed. Haag responded to the decision (which she called censorship) by removing the show entirely.

Matthew Chmielarczyk, APU
Photo removed from exhibition after APU received complaints from parents attending a violin recital. Five months later, "Untitled #1," which featured a female figure wrapped up like a piece of meat, received an honorable mention in "Rarefied Light," a juried art show at the Anchorage Museum.

Art students, UAA
Poster board used to cover gallery windows in the UAA Student Center following complaints about student art; acting student activities coordinator Cricket Watt said the center had a longstanding policy of "shielding potentially offensive art from general traffic" (Anchorage Daily News). The UAA Student Center also houses a day care center. Student artists posted a statement that read, in part, "Censorship is broader than the act of banning."

Linda McCarriston, UAA
McCarriston accused of racism by a graduate student after the publication of her poem "Indian Girls." After the student's complaints were referred to administrators, university president Mark Hamilton issued a statement supporting the University of Alaska's commitment to free speech.

Art students, UAA
Nude sketches covered at UAA's fine arts building during a middle school solo and ensemble festival; faculty said it was to protect the art, but students called it censorship.

Anson Tsang, UAA student
A phallic sculpture was damaged (and subsequently removed) when it was moved and covered up by parents of children using the fine arts building.

Philip Munger, UAA
Composer canceled the premiere of his cantata "The Skies Are Weeping" after student musicians were threatened. The work memorialized International Solidarity Movement member Rachel Corrie, who was killed by an Israeli Defense Forces bulldozer in 2003 as she protested the demolition of a house in the Gaza Strip. News of its proposed performance was met with fierce opposition from a local Orthodox Jewish rabbi.

Mariano Gonzales, APU
University administrators decided to move the installation because of profanity in public comments. Artist chose to remove the installation rather than relocate it to a venue he felt was inappropriate.

That's pretty comprehensive, but not entirely accurate. I can't write on behalf of the unnamed art students, Tony Hamilton, Rene Dolan Haag, Matthew Chmielarczyk or Linda McCarriston. Mariano Gonzales was interviewed for the article.

One of the two most glaring shortcomings of the article, though, was its one-sided and prejudicial coverage of the dispute between a UAA faculty artist and a student who was also an artist, in the McCarriston dispute with Diane Benson over what Benson regarded as libelous content in McCarriston's poem "Indian Girls." Progressive Alaska will be posting Diane Benson's article, Standing Up Against the Giant, later today. It will be the first time the article, originally written in 2003 for the American Indian Quarterly, in 2003, will have been published locally.

I responded to the inaccuracies involving my 2004 experience at UAA in a comment appended to Nolan's article. Before printing that here, I should note that I didn't feel slighted by Nolan's Dispatch article. Additionally, Nolan, like every other reviewer of my music in the Anchorage press over the years (with the sole exception of Len Frazier, who rarely had a kind word for any local artist), has been very fulsome in praise for my musical work in her reviews, and even when she was not positive about some aspects, I've been in total agreement with her views.

Here's my Alaska Dispatch comment:

Posted By: Philip Munger @ 11.27.2009 12:52 PM
Maia Nolan's estimable article here is flawed by a few inaccuracies, one of which involves my relationship with UAA at the time of the withdrawal of "The Skies are Weeping" from possible performance there on April 8th, 2004.

1) Although I had deep concern for the safety of student performers already rehearsing parts of the work, none had been directly threatened, as their names hadn't yet been published or circulated. One of the threats I received by email was that should I go through with the performance, the student performers' names would end up on the DOHS "no-fly" list. There were other email and phone threats I received that implied a danger to the students.

The only people who had received direct threats at the time of cancellation were the proposed soprano soloist and me. I don't believe I've ever indicated otherwise.

2) Regarding my friend Steve Haycox's view that "[Haycox] thinks the university should have more vigorously defended composer and adjunct faculty member Philip Munger in 2004, when Munger canceled the scheduled premiere of his controversial cantata "The Skies Are Weeping" after student musicians received threats," Maia Nolan might have served this article better had she bothered to get my own viewpoint on this important subject.

The decision to cancel the UAA performance was solely mine. My supervisor and the staff of the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences were very supportive, and tried to talk me out of canceling. I have never suffered any workplace retaliation for having written the work, which, though performed in the UK, has yet to receive an American rendition.

3) I have dealt with or spoken with just about every person mentioned in this article, except APU president Doug North: I dedicated my 1993 work, "Shadows" to Rick Steiner, and have written more articles about his current situation than perhaps anyone else; Linda McCarriston wrote one of the lyrics for "The Skies are Weeping," which was initially dedicated to Gen. Hamilton; I performed "Shards" at the opening and closing of Mariano Gonazales' APU exhibit; and I have spent almost 1,000 hours volunteering for Diane Benson between 2006 and 2008, writing dozens of articles about Benson as civil rights pioneer, public figure and artist along the way.

Why Nolan chose to interview neither Diane Benson nor me for this article is a bit bizarre, to say the least.

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