Art censorship stifles speech
Auraria turns a blind eye to the first amendment
Published: Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, April 18, 2012 01:04
In recent weeks, Auraria Higher Education Center’s botched handling of a confrontation over an art piece containing adult content has been seething within the Arts Building. But now, accusastions of censorship have caused the controversy to boil over.
A mixed media piece of art titled Garbage Vagina was put up on one of the “Post Artwork Here” walls—now the “Post Approved Artwork Here” walls—in the Arts Building as an attempt by artist Estee Fox to be a part of the showcasing of artwork students on campus can create.
“It was a serious subject that I was painting, but it was my own personal expression,” said Fox, a Metro junior seeking a BFA with an emphasis in painting. Garbage Vagina depicts a blacked out face on a body with garbage discharging from female genitalia, which holds artistic meaning open for interpretation beyond its initial adult content.
“A Metro club got all the administrations to approve of putting up boards for students to elect to hang up their own artwork whenever they wanted without ever going through anybody,” said Fox. “So that is when I put it up.”
Shortly after Fox put up her piece, some students took it into their own hands to censor Fox’s artwork. The first attempt by a student involved ripping down Garbage Vagina and leaving a message on the back reading, “Not here. People bring their innocent children into this building. Show some fucking courtesy.”
In a second effort to remove the piece, another student posted a page long letter near the artwork expressing how the piece offended the student and that Garbage Vagina should be put in an area where people can choose to view it instead of in a public hallway. However, the “Post Artwork Here” walls were originally intended to be an area designated with the intent to showcase student artwork away from the public.
In the third censorship attempt, a student stabbed a several paged manifesto with a large flip-out knife onto Garbage Vagina covering the woman, shocking Fox at the way it had escalated to an angry threat instead of a civilized attempt to send a message about their objection. The first page read, “While the First Amendment guarantees the unhindered expression of creativity, it does not guarantee that expression’s validity, quality, or gravitas.”
“Censorship to me isn’t about intimidation. It’s about expressing your opinion—and an opposing opinion—and trying to work to control that together to come to an agreement, as opposed to threatening,” said Michael Brohman senior instructor of sculpture at CU Denver. “What happened with Estee is more of a threat with a knife. Threat and intimidation as opposed to a planned out sit-down-and-talk your differences over.”
Subsequently, Fox filed a BETA report and police report, only to find that no one from administration contacted her during or after the occurrence. A few weeks later, Fox decided to take down Garbage Vagina herself.
“The Institute for Women’s Studies and Services approached me and asked me to hang it up in their gallery, so we put the painting back up in their building,” said Fox. “Then we had a brown bag discussion, so I invited people to come and talk to me about the issues and censorship and the painting. The conversation that was happening around it was really good and healthy.”
Eventually, AHEC stepped in and started censoring all the artwork by changing the “Post Artwork Here” walls to the “Post Approved Artwork Here” walls. “They changed the title and removed all artwork from the wall. I had a few different pieces hanging that were thrown away,” said Fox.
AHEC posted a letter encased in plastic beside the first wall, which reads: “The recently installed art boards in Arts Building are currently being repurposed. These display boards will allow space for Auraria Students to showcase art work being created through their academic courses. Student art displays would need to be affiliated with a current semester course. To have artwork displayed in these locations, please contact the appropriate art department.”
“They recently changed to the ‘Post Approved Artwork’ at the beginning of last week, and they just began hanging up approved artwork a few days ago,” said Fox. Currently, none of the artwork on display contains any graphic content. As of the printing of this article, students must go through an evaluation process, which many consider to be censorship, before being permitted to put up works of art on the “Post Approved Artwork Here” walls. Fox has currently been denied the right to put up artwork in the Art Building.
The fact that this occurrence took place on a college campus—typically viewed as a place where free expression and admiration for ideas and creativity are tremendously appreciated—could be considered counterintuitive. Fox and The Institute for Women’s Studies and Services had to set up a brown bag discussion in order for both sides to exercise their right to free speech and moderate a considerate and adult conversation about Fox’s art.
“Whoever put the knife on there and left their manifesto was only seeing it from their limited point of view and not looking at all the other points of views from everybody else that encountered that work, and interacted with that work,” said Brohman. “I think had that person asked other people who were walking by whether they were offended by it, or confronted by it, or even encouraged or enlightened by it, I think that would have gotten a more positive dialogue going as opposed to just trying to shut it down completely.”
Students who inquire about the censorship are told that these decisions come from higher up and that nothing can be done about them. “No one is giving me a straight answer. No one is saying ‘this is our decision to do this,’” said Fox.
By not protecting the rights of expression, AHEC is silencing students like Fox who believe that even controversial subject matter can be displayed publicly. According to The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a student’s work of art on a campus cannot be prohibited if the work has meaningful artistic value.