Should there be “trigger warnings” for artwork? Some colleges provide these alerts to students when assigned reading material may reawaken traumatic memories, such as being sexually assaulted or called racial epithets. One can understand both the good intentions of the school administration and the difficulty of exploring a full range of issues in a course when certain topics are truncated or avoided. Now imagine that the college course is part of a studio art program and some of the relevant material is art that examines such mature subjects as the nude human body, or controversial elements of contemporary society.
Not all art is confrontational, looking to shock the bourgeoisie. Henri Matisse, whose painting was daring during his day and a pleasure in our own, claimed to want “an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter . . . a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair.” Artwork that aims to soothe still can be found, but much of the art of our time purports to challenge ideas about cultural and societal norms. Private art colleges and university studio art departments often act as laboratories for this kind of artwork, both good and bad, as ideas can be tried out in an environment not dependent on sales. Who entering an art school doesn’t understand that implicitly?
Presumably, the students enrolled in Saul Levine’s film-production course at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. These nascent scholars were “triggered” by his showing of his 1989 film Notes After a Long Silence, which included fleeting close-up images of a penis and a suggestion of sexual intercourse. After receiving anonymously filed complaints, college administrators summoned Levine to a meeting, during which he was condemned for showing the film. Levine was compelled to resign his long-held position at the school on March 30 rather than spend money on legal fees contesting the allegations.
Levine’s departure took place just days after another renowned faculty member of the college, the photographer Nicholas Nixon, was forced to retire after charges of inappropriate behavior were lodged against him.
Nixon, whose photography is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, among others, received a notice from MassArt administrators that he was alleged to have “made inappropriate comments in the presence of students and staff members.” He was not told which comments were deemed inappropriate or who made the complaint, but, after working at the college for forty-three years, during which time, according to his lawyer Bruce A. Singal, “Nick has been widely known for a provocative teaching style in a creative art school environment that he believed was inspiring to his students,” he was forced out. The artist retained the services of the lawyer in order to “have his good name cleared” during a Title IX investigation, Singal added.
The recent situation at MassArt is reminiscent of another instance from an art college in 2017. Michael Bonesteel, an expert on the Chicago artist Henry Darger, had taught classes on outsider art and comic books at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for fourteen years when he was confronted with charges of being “insensitive” in his spoken comments and not providing trigger warnings for one of the books assigned to a class.
In one of his classes, Bonesteel posited the unproven but generally accepted theory that Henry Darger had been sexually abused as a child, explaining why the little girls in his illustrations have penises. One of his students objected, taking that criticism to school administrators who mandated that Bonesteel meet with a diversity counselor and receive training in how to deal with “identity-related material” in his reading list. In another class, a student complained about an assigned book that included the suggestion of a rape, because Bonesteel had not provided a trigger warning in advance to his students. Again, a complaint was brought to administrators who “determined that it is more likely than not that [Bonesteel’s] conduct in relation to this student constituted harassment based on gender-identity in violation of the School’s Policy Against Discrimination, Harassment, and Retaliation.” At the end of that school year, Bonesteel was notified that his teaching hours would be cut back sharply, making him ineligible for health insurance coverage. He resigned, criticizing school administrators for siding against him. “It is my contention,” he wrote, “that I have been unfairly vilified and demonized by [a] small cadre of militant LBGT students with an authoritarian agenda.”
Art school is not for the timid, and many students in bachelor of fine arts programs seek an opportunity to express a wide range of outré personas and concepts that may or may not figure into their more mature work. School administrators understand this and try to encourage experimentation while only curbing activities that damage property or put others at risk. The Maryland Institute College of Art, for instance, posts its code of conduct for those involved in performance or installation, barring illegal drugs, the use of weaponry, setting off fireworks or other explosives, and exposing others to blood, urine, feces, chemicals, and other hazardous materials. “Graffiti and defacement of MICA buildings and public or private property are not considered artwork,” it is noted, and students are warned against defacing the Corpus Christi church across the street from the college. These rules were instituted because every one of these activities—including acts against the church building—was done at one point or another. The list could have been longer (one student put another student into a working freezer, and yet another brought a homeless person onto campus, both as art projects), but people get the idea: whatever you want to do, get permission first. Or, in the language of the college’s code of conduct: “Artists who would like to display or install performance, installation, or sound art on public spaces on the MICA campus must obtain prior written authorization from the MICA Office of Events.”
The Massachusetts College of Art and Design’s handbook section on “Artistic Freedom and Grievances” is a bit shorter, largely dealing with real and facsimile weapons, and it leaves the issue of what may or may not be deemed offensive to be decided on a case by case basis: “If an exhibitor has questions regarding the ‘artistic freedom limits’ of a particular artwork, s/he is advised to consult with the Director of Exhibitions prior to the exhibition. Questions concerning artworks on display should also be directed to the Director of Exhibitions.” If there is a disagreement, then the matter would go to an exhibitions committee for a full presentation and discussion. All very civilized.
Left unanswered by these handbooks is the question of what instructors may say and display in a college-level studio art program. Being provocative and making students feel uncomfortable would seem to be part of the job, because the aim is to expand their thinking and creativity, to get them out of their comfort zones, even if the ideas with which they are presented are ones that some or all of the students ultimately reject. If art students are so easily “triggered” by works of art, perhaps they should consider another major.