Censorship of student work undermines freedom of expression
I submitted a series of three photographs to the Bowdoin Art Society’s (BAS) call for submissions earlier this month with the hope that they would be included in the fall show. Shortly after my submission, I received an email from a representative of BAS who told me they needed to “push back” on my series. It was rejected because the BAS felt the need to “err on the side of caution when it comes to certain topics of controversy.”
Two of the photographs depict a realistic dildo, one juxtaposed with my forearm and the other with the open hand of a friend. They were made for an assignment in VART 2401: Large Format Photography that asked my peers and me to make photographs comparing objects that result in the viewer questioning common notions of the size of those objects. My images were successful in that aim and were well-received by the class. The size differences are so extreme that it is comical.
The most disturbing statement in the correspondence with BAS was the disclosure that the organization made the decision to reject my photos “to respect the Deans’ intentions for Family Weekend and their contributions to the possibility of the show.” What are their intentions and why do they differ so greatly from the normal operation of the College where my image is considered benign?
For context, BAS displayed a series of photographs in last year’s fall show that some administrators deemed inappropriate. As a result, the funding for the show was reduced. Less funding means less opportunity to exhibit student work this weekend.
The Art Society’s fall show should be a place for the Bowdoin community to display work without filter or administrative intervention. Failure of the organization and the administration to allow all opinions and expression undermines the freedom to express opinions on this campus. Art must be protected, even when dealing with controversial issues or graphic subject matter. The actions of the administration threaten the academic and intellectual missions of this institution and should be reconsidered immediately. The exclusion of art on these grounds sets a dangerous precedent for provocative art on this campus—allowing the administration to censor any installation that does not meet their standards for how they want the College to be viewed on any given day.
If Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1985 photograph “Cock” was currently on exhibition at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (BCMA), would the administration have it removed as to not offend any visitors this weekend? It’s remarkably similar to my photographs and Mapplethorpe has encountered the same reasoning for censorship throughout his career. The administration would never intervene in the operation of BCMA. Because BAS has a similar mission particularly when it comes to displaying student work, administrators should allow students to curate the fall show free from interference or threats.
To the Art Society: decide whether you want an autonomous show that truly represents the breadth of talent at Bowdoin College or money from an administration that has no real appreciation for student artists and the free expression of opinion. You cannot have both.
The images are on view at garrettenglish.com.
Garrett English is a member of the Class of 2016.
Here Having Been There: Garrett English ’16 calls a rural Texas oil-drilling community his home
Denver City, Texas, is my hometown. Its population is just about 4,500. The landscape is not conventionally beautiful: the trees are rarely taller than you, the only water is located a few hundred feet beneath the ground and—at times—everything is brown, even the sky. It is neither a lie nor an exaggeration to say that it is located in the middle of nowhere. Austin, Dallas, El Paso, and Houston are all 400 miles away. It is unlikely that my hometown would exist if not for the millions of dollars buried thousands of feet below the surface. It is an oil field town.
After drilling began in the area, my hometown was added as an afterthought. Subdivisions fit snugly between the checkerboard pattern of oil wells. From the street, my house and my neighborhood appear normal—they could be located anywhere in the Southwest. Directly behind my house, just 200 feet from my back porch, is a pump jack—the most iconic symbol of the oil industry.
It was not until I arrived at Bowdoin almost two years ago that I was able to reflect and appreciate the experience of growing up in Denver City and to understand the reasons why my family lived there. My feelings about home are greatly influenced by my father and his own experiences. His family moved four times while he was in school, so he promised himself that we would not move until my two younger sisters and I graduated from the same high school. His decision and his resolve puzzled me. Because he does not work in the oil industry, I was unable to see what he saw in the town. He put aside building his career so that my sisters and I would have a strong connection to a place.
I enjoy returning home to a tight-knit community made up of people that I have known for the greater part of the past 15 years. We say that it takes a village to raise a child, and I know that the people in my community helped make me who I am. While growing up, I would often fantasize about what my life would be like had I grown up in a major city. I am now thankful that I did not. The relationships and friendships I built overshadow all shortcomings of the city, the landscape and the inconvenience of living an hour away from civilization. It is the kind of place that I want my kids to grow up in.
Snapshot: Inside professors' work spaces
Prof. Katie Byrnes, Education. Photo by Kate Featherston
Prof. Eric Chown, Computer Science. Photo by Brian Jacobel