The move of a student art exhibit, which featured images of self-harm and a noose, from a prominent University of Colorado lobby to a more secluded basement room has sparked a debate about free speech on campus, as well as what responsibility artists have to consider the historical implications of their work.
Kaelen Williams, a senior seeking a Bachelor of Fine Arts, created the artwork in question. His exhibit, "Less Than Nothing," was displayed in the lobby of the Visual Arts Complex briefly last week. Kendall Goduto, who graduated from CU in May with a degree in art history, curated the exhibit. The pair designed promotional posters for the event, which featured the painting of the noose.
As they were installing the exhibit Thursday before the Friday opening of the exhibit, they were informed the posters would be removed because students had complained about them, they said.
Then, Friday morning, they received an email from the chair of the Art and Art History department, Kirk Ambrose, which read in part: "The faculty of Art & Art History met today and determined that the venue for your current BFA Exhibition is inappropriate. After your opening this evening, you have option of moving your work to (Visual Arts Complex) 1B32 by 8am Monday, December 4 ..."
Ambrose did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.
"I don't think I did anything wrong," Williams said. "I think if they didn't want that work in the lobby, they had to make that decision before I was given permission to use that space."
CU officials said they are still assessing the situation and working to find a solution.
"Faculty are working with the student to come to a resolution in this matter," CU spokeswoman Deborah Mendez Wilson said in a written statement. "The student was asked to relocate his artwork because students and others felt threatened by some of the images contained in the exhibition, including a noose, hooded figures and satanic images. Nevertheless, we wanted to give the artist the opportunity to continue to display his work, and still allow visitors the choice as to whether they wanted to view his creations.
"Placing provocative work in less conspicuous locations is not unusual in the art world. In museums and galleries, curators are attuned to art placement and do not always place the most provocative work in heavily trafficked areas. Context is crucial to art displays, and responsible curation often requires "preparing" the viewer for the type of art they will be seeing."
A 'triggering' image
The exhibit, now in a basement of the Visual Arts Complex, features 22 paintings and 15 small drawings, which Williams said document the development of his "thinking regarding the nature of reality and human experience."
The noose, Williams said, was meant to illustrate his panpsychism beliefs. He believes that the universe has a collective consciousness, and humans' "egoic consciousness" grates against the consciousness they have with the universe.
"The idea with the noose was that I wanted to reframe the idea of suicidal ideation, which I think is a much more prevalent sort of thing than we like to acknowledge — and not to, obviously, support suicide but just to present it in a different light as possibly a desire to return to a state of unity with the universe," he said.
He chose a noose, he said, because of Death Grips' song, "On GP," which he said is about but does not promote suicidal ideation. He taught himself how to play the song on piano and mandolin, and the song's lyrics have stuck with him since.
He did acknowledge, though, that he did not consider how black students in particular might react to seeing a noose on posters and in artwork in the school, and both he and Goduto were under the impression that the noose was the primary point of concern.
"I really didn't consider it because it was so far away from what I was thinking about and why I made it," he said. "In hindsight, it seems kind of obvious now, but I still don't think the exhibition as a whole really supports that interpretation. And I understand that that image is just inherently triggering."
Goduto said much the same, and that she'd considered the suicidal implications but not the racial implications. She said she was upset that Williams — and she by extension — did not have as much faculty guidance as they would have liked to navigate curating the exhibit before it was already on the wall. Because Williams was the only senior slated to graduate this semester, he did not have the same cohort experience that others do, they said.
"I don't think you can censor student art," she said. "I don't think you have a right to do that at all, especially given the circumstance that he was not given the mentorship and the correct guidance for this process. I think it is just absolutely absurd."
Williams explained that other images, of figures with bags over their heads, were another way to portray his ideas about panpyschism, too. Other images were more benign still lifes, he said, like paintings of objects, sunflowers and abstract pieces.
"That initial reaction is totally valid, but that's part of the process of viewing art, to sit with it and think about it," he said. "That's sort of the whole idea of art, right? If we're trying to get into an area where artists have to be afraid of what will happen as a result of putting out their work, I think that's a bad road to go down."
Some said the display of the noose, both on posters and in the exhibit, ignored the connotations of the imagery.
"I'm sure it's part of his body of work, but it's also a good teaching moment that it's very important for people to be sensitive of symbols that have been of great torment and pain in some other communities' experiences," said Robert Stuart, the president of the Boulder branch of the NAACP.
"It's important that the opportunity is here for that student to recognize that our speech is sometimes very painful to other people."
Americans cannot ignore the reality of the country's slave-owning past or history of lynchings, he said. He compared the imagery of a noose to that of a swastika. A swastika is not free of its link to the genocide of European Jews, and white Americans must be similarly cognizant of the link between a noose and the country's "tragic history of treatment of African Americans" — a history that did not end with the Civil War, he said.
"It's important that people learn these things," Stuart said. "I'm sure this child never did, because no one ever taught him."
He added: "I would also say that, in my mind, the University of Colorado will never be a world-class institution until it can recruit students and faculty of color as well as it can recruit athletes of color."
The National Coalition Against Censorship, meanwhile, weighed in on the moving of the exhibit.
"University art spaces are in high demand and often require multiple layers of approval for use," the NCAC post said in part. "However, once that approval is granted, demands for removal or relocation based on the art's content can violate the First Amendment.
"NCAC is currently working with the artist and reaching out to CU Boulder to ensure that Williams' artistic freedom is upheld."
As of Monday night, 200 people had also signed a Change.org petition Williams started to fight what he described as censorship.
The department faced a similar controversy beginning in late December 2012 and spanning until March 2013, when graduate student Clarissa Peppers displayed two works entitled "I Don't Whistle" and "When in Rome," which displayed looping videos of a winging bell and cyclamen flowers, respectively, below female genitalia.
Her artwork was removed from the same lobby in response to complaints from people who used the space and moved to a basement room. She later reapplied to display the artwork in the lobby again, and was granted permission with the caveat that her work would be displayed with cautionary signage and behind a floor-to-ceiling curtain.
Cassa Niedringhaus: 303-473-1106, firstname.lastname@example.org