A Crisis of Culture (Again)

Statue of children playing tug of war.
Photo by Paul J. Everett via flickr, CC BY 2.0.

From the removal of confederate statues throughout the South to the controversial actions by football players during the national anthem, we, as a nation, are currently arguing about what our shared cultural values are, but let’s be clear: this is important work. It is important work that’s been going on for a long time and will continue far into the future with fluctuating degrees of intensity.

As an artist and as the former director of Exhibitions and Events at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), I have experienced similar conflict. During my ten years at SAIC, there were two major controversies at the School centered around the display of student artwork. The first involved a painting that showed the recently deceased Mayor Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African-American mayor, dressed in pink women’s lingerie. The second controversy involved the display of a multi-media sculptural installation that raised the question, “What is the proper way to display a U.S. flag?” This piece included an actual American flag resting on the floor beneath a photomontage of flags and a shelf holding a notebook with pen for viewers’ responses.

As director, I was responsible for providing an open forum in which art students could challenge themselves by trying new ideas and discussing different viewpoints in order to grow as artists. Both of the artworks that stirred controversy were well within the normal range of what was typical at the School, but the international media attention that they generated— and the violent response that included everything from fist fights to bomb threats—caused a severe rupture in the normal operations of the school.

I believe that both experiences are relevant to understanding current events, although they are not the same in their specifics. I would like to share three things that I learned then as an administrator and find useful now.

  1. Be aware of your bubble

The degree to which our school community all shared the same values was an unexpected revelation during these controversies. Liberal white faculty members were shocked to learn that they were racist. Middle class kids learned that men and women soldiers die every day in ongoing wars for their country. We had to confront these realities and ended up questioning our deeply held belief that we were a part of an open dialogue and free exchange of ideas.

Today, we talk about the bubble formed through social media which supports people talking to “friends”, or other people with the same ideas. Social isolation occurs in many ways. We can either choose to live in an echo chamber for greater comfort or we can simply end up there through inertia. Either way, social isolation is dangerous.

  1. Violence is a real possibility

During the month that What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag? was exhibited in the student gallery of SAIC, the school and the Museum of the Art Institute made a heavy investment in security, hiring undercover off-duty police officers to “protect the perimeter” of the exhibition. Even so, we experienced daily acts of violence in the gallery and many arrests were made. Military veterans from across the Midwest organized themselves to maintain a vigil next to the displayed flag while engaging in verbal and physical confrontations with gallery visitors.

Discussions about the protection of First Amendment rights often fail to take into consideration the actual costs of that protection. We assume that it is the responsibility of our institutions and government to protect our rights, but at what cost? Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at Berkeley and a First Amendment scholar, was recently quoted in the New York Times:

“This university spent $600,000 to facilitate Ben Shapiro coming, and it was estimated [that] if Milo Yiannopoulos came, it would cost $1 million,” he said. “It’s not sustainable for this campus on a weekly basis to facilitate free speech while protecting public safety. Where is that line to be drawn? It’s a really hard question.”

  1. Learn empathy

Both controversies at SAIC elicited strong emotional responses, but from very different groups of people. As a left leaning liberal, I was sympathetic to the deeply offended Black Chicagoans. As someone who grew up with an anti-war stance during the Vietnam era, I was not inclined to sympathize with veterans. Even so, as I processed these two experiences, I realized that I was in fact sympathetic to both groups, simply because I could not deny the authenticity of either response. My heart ached for the angry reporter from the Chicago Defender who loudly confronted the dean and me over the painting of Harold Washington hanging in the hallway. And I ached for the middle aged white man weeping silently as he looked at the American flag displayed on the floor of our gallery.

I was recently attending a family event and ran into family I rarely see. The story of the SAIC controversies came up when I was asked about my current book project. It took very little time for the conversation to devolve into a heated exchange, at which point one cousin demanded to know, “If you could do it again now, would you still make the decision to display the flag on the floor?”

The question highlighted my role in the controversy as an administrator and at the same time, conflated decisions made in that role with my personal feelings about the artwork. This confusion of perspective occurs often during these cultural controversies, and works to further distort the issues.

These are times when our disagreements deeply divide us as a nation. No matter where we stand politically, emotionally, or professionally, it is critical that we have the opportunity to debate our differences. And I would argue that we all have an important role to play in protecting our opportunities to debate and express ourselves freely.

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