Art Censorship at Kennesaw State?

Commentary by Ellen Eldridge, Sentinel Staff Writer

Censorship of art, music, writing, speech or sculpture has no place on a university campus, but when Kennesaw State University President Daniel Papp decided to censor a commissioned piece of art from the grand opening of the Bernard A. Zuckerman Museum Saturday, he ignited controversy and added interest to the art.

Commentary by Ellen Eldridge, Sentinel Staff Writer

Commentary by Ellen Eldridge, Sentinel Staff Writer

When I earned a S.A.L.T. internship conducting market research for the Zuckerman Museum of Art, I felt proud and excited to be part of this addition to KSU history. But a few hours before I was to report to my position on the volunteer staff, a Facebook tag asked me how I felt about Papp’s censorship of one of the art pieces by Ruth Stanford. I had to start reading everything I could to answer the public question. I both represented the ZMA and KSU. I felt cornered, knowing only that, as a general rule, I oppose censorship.

When I walked through the museum week after week, smelling the paint and anticipating the art, I was both excited and privileged. I got a chance to walk the steps before they were finished, and I snuck a peak at the featured exhibit “See Through Walls” while it was just a piece of hanging glass and a pole in the center of the room.

When we volunteers had orientation specifically for the grand opening, the two pieces that caught my attention the most were those by Ruth Stanford. The floating tree trunk and the ripped-up book, as they stood out in my mind, were pieces I intended to examine fully when I wasn’t working at the ZMA. I didn’t know the history of those pieces. I didn’t know the artist’s name. I just knew the installation inspired me visually, as art should.

Stanford, who is an assistant professor of sculpture at Georgia State University, “explores history and notions of presence/absence, permanence/impermanence, fiction/reality, conscious/unconscious in her art,” according to her profile at GSU. “She views each element of a particular work as an individual data point referencing a complex phylogeny of personal and collective experience.” This describes Stanford’s artistic process in trying to understand the history behind a turn-of-the-century letter in support of lynching, written by a woman who was, at best, a product of her time.

Insisting that the installation be removed from the museum’s opening because it is not “celebratory,” as the official KSU press release states is simply ridiculous. Papp’s actions likely created more controversy and attention than the artwork itself would have.

Standford’s art drew from the history associated with the 56-acre Corra Harris homestead in Bartow County, which was donated to KSU in 2009 amid controversy of its own. Panels and protests were held concerning the acquisition of the land. According to an article published July 13, 2009, in Creative Loafing, Richard Vengroff, who was at the time dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at KSU, found the Harris letter from 1899 and informed Papp of its implications. KSU could be seen as “in the business of promoting someone who defended lynching,” as International Affairs Professor Nurudeen Akinyemi said in the same Creative Loafing article from 2009.

After reading about the controversy surrounding KSU’s land acquisition, Papp’s decision to censor art that mentions Harris makes KSU appear that its administration was more profit-motivated than anything else in accepting the land donation. Papp’s media silence during the grand opening leaves students, artists and the Atlanta art community wondering: Does he want to hide history, avoid embarrassment or protect the “celebratory atmosphere,” mentioned in the KSU press release?

My guess is that Papp caused more harsh sentiment, anger and even resentment toward the ZMA because museums are supposed to look at history, and attention drawn by censorship has already yielded negative reviews on the ZMA Facebook Page. Artists should be encouraged to ask questions about perspective and help assuage the hurt that we humans have caused each other.

“We’re here to protest the decision by Kennesaw State University’s president, Dr. Papp, to censor artwork by Ruth Stanford,” said Mark Leibert, a protestor at the ZMA opening. “We’re here in the hopes that the president will reinstate the work and issue an apology. This has created an amplification of Stanford’s message and created an opportunity for dialogue.”

The museum staff, as well as protestors and I, await Papp’s statement. The Stanford installation has not been banned. The art will be displayed, but no official announcement as to when has been made at the time of this article.

*****

What do you think? Leave a comment below!

  • Christy Sanford

    At the GSU website, Ruth Stanford is listed as “Associate” Professor, not “Assistant” Professor.

  • Josh

    Great reporting, Ellen.

  • Geeves

    >he ignited controversy and added interest to the art.

    i actually have a hunch that this was the intent of the decision to suspend display of the painting. an article in the AJC titled “KSU opens art museum” doesn’t really attract views, but “KSU censors painting before museum opening” (or whatever it was titled) does. i was at the opening for the first hour or so and it was immensely clear that the zuckerman family, as well as the university, had invested a lot of time and money into the place. note that the design of the building was markedly less generic than the rest of the campus. the bathrooms are something out of a midtown bar. everything about the museum sends a message that kennesaw state university is adding the kind of thing you’d expect from a place like emory or vanderbilt.

    i realize i am just speculating, and even possibly suggesting a ‘conspiracy theory’, but controversy is how you get noticed in today’s over-saturated media/newspaper environment. any idiot had to have realized what sorts of bad repercussions would arise from censoring a piece of art, especially one so strongly linked with black history. however, there is also the positive effect of getting noticed, of being more than just a blip on the local/regional/possibly national radar. it would have been a failure for the opening of this museum to be just resigned to a slight mention in the creative loafing local events section.

    the other museum on campus was started because a professor was fired, *supposedly* because he was jewish (i only say “supposedly” in quotes because i am not very familiar with the entire story. the reason for his firing was never clearly understood). the university responded by building the holocaust history center. fast forward to today, and the university should have already been aware of the risks that come with treading on equality. why would they then do something in similar vein to the new art museum? nobody was talking about the museum before they did this. nobody.

    i, for one, am glad that the arts here are getting more public attention. i don’t care how it was achieved. if they really did this to manufacture controversy/publicity, then i applaud their dedication to getting the museum noticed.