On May 16, LBCC’s Board of Education discussed LBCC’s academic freedom policy — the right of scholars and teachers to teach material without repercussions, whether or not is it considered appropriate by all political, religious, or other select belief systems.
The policy came under increased scrutiny following a string art display in North Santiam Hall featuring Andrew Douglas Campbell that sparked a vibrant discussion across campus about art.
After remarks were made by those in the LBCC community, the question arose: does art displayed need to be censored due to the reaction of certain individuals? Fortunately, LBCC has decided no.
Anne Magratten, art professor and faculty supervisor of student gallery coordinators, was glad the board policy passed the way it did because it supports academic freedom in the broadest possible sense.
Campbell’s string art piece, “… and then what will happen bent to what could happen,” was the catalyst for this ongoing discussion. Campbell is a 39-year-old artist currently teaching at University of Oregon’s College of Design, and is a colleague of Magratten’s from when they attended UO together. He graduated in 2017. His piece displayed intimate homosexual content, which sparked much judgment and antagonism from certain viewers. Following this reaction, LBCC’s Civil Discourse Club hosted a conversation where students were encouraged to express their views in a diplomatic fashion.
“I wanted to make work about how my desires are represented in the marketplace. I wanted to be frank about my thoughts. I wanted to avoid innuendo. I wanted to be honest even at the expense of politeness,” Campbell said. “I wanted to look at how desire is shaped by representation (books, tv, film, video games, porn,music, poetry, etc). I wanted to look at how representation is shaped by market trends. I wanted to look at how late capitalism dictates how we present ourselves. I wanted to look at how flimsy, tenuous, and transparent this structure is.”
“I think it really opened the door for a lot of art,” student artist and gallery coordinator Michael Bosch said of Campbell’s work. Bosch is the artist of a piece recently displayed in NSH titled “Frat House.” The painting displays a fraternity house with “RAPE” written in red greek letters on the front.
“I personally feel like, because I had my first solo show and I displayed my frat houses a couple times around school, that he kind of opened the door for me to not have to deal with backlash,” said Bosch, who was “really trying to highlight the egregious amount of sexual assault that takes place in fraternity houses.”
Following Campbell’s string art and Bosch’s painting, 18-year-old student artist James Harley-Parr’s multimedia piece, “The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” won the spring juror’s choice award, one of the most prestigious awards given at the spring juried student art show.
Harley-Parr wanted to bring attention to the representation of transgender individuals, specifically how sometimes their identity is invalidated when people want “proof” of the said identity. Harley-Parr said took the biblical story of St. Thomas demanding proof of Jesus being alive after his execution and used that as an analogy.
“I sort of laugh when people get mad at my art because it’s sort of an accomplishment when people react with such strong emotion. If I hadn’t painted the piece, viewers would have never seen the painting and possibly wouldn’t have thought about transgender people next to religion,” Harley-Parr said. “I think that it’s great that people are having such strong emotions! That’s what art is for! Get offended, get angry, get sad. Feel something!”
“These are three independent artists that are pushing different boundaries with their work,” Magratten said. “Andrew Douglas Campbell I think is presenting work that has to do with a traditionally very marginalized community — gay men. Michael I think is presenting work trying to provoke and trying to start a conversation about sexual violence in frat houses, and then James is wanting to ask questions I think about the representation of trans individuals.”
Bosch suggested that we look at what “controversial art” really means.
“Often what is initially considered controversial art is really art that is moving a movement forward,” he said, adding that this trend is shown in art history.
Campbell expanded on this idea: “I am being asked about controversy because people think my art is controversial, and if I entertain questions about controversy then I am accepting the label of ‘controversial art’ and I am admitting that I think my art is controversial. What if my art isn’t controversial?”
We define whether art is “controversial” through our reactions to it. Campbell said no one is ever going to like all art, part of art is liking some and not liking others.
“It is okay that you don’t like this art,” he said. “ Please let the people that like this art enjoy this art in peace, just as you have enjoyed the art you like in peace.”
When examining history, art that was considered immoral or that was demonized at first also was capable of advancing a culture by expanding the world of art within that culture. Through art we come to understand our society, what it readily accepts and what it doesn’t.
“Art provides an idea. It is the community’s place to observe that idea and embrace it or reject it, or argue over it, or come to a consensus… Art that pushes boundaries is necessary for culture to understand its own values. If all art reinforced previously established values it would be incredibly difficult to communicate lacks and needs within a community,” Campbell said.
Sophomore and LBCC student artist Jess Ball said Campbell’s work is important because it helps normalize an underrepresented group.
“I hope to see more like that in LBCC galleries in the future,” she said. “The artistic community at LBCC has really grown closer over this debate. We all know what is right, and that is the freedom to express what you need to express. People should not feel afraid to share their art; it is the only outlet for some of us,” Ball said.
“There’s a particular function of affirming norms through images. So we see this happen in the big rise in criticism of media and the fact that maybe there’s a particular way that women are presented … and how just exposure to those images repeatedly sets up a norm, and so introducing something that expands that norm is really exciting,” said Magratten.
Although Campbell’s work has been criticized, it’s fostered a healthy conversation in our community about art — its place, what it means, when and where it should be displayed. This conversation has opened up a dialogue among students, faculty, and community members capable of creating change.
Which reminds me of a quote found in a notebook given to me:
“All boundaries are conventions… One may transcend any convention, if only one can first conceive of doing so.” — David Mitchell, “Cloud Atlas”