Hamline University and the Sanctity of Art

There is rightfully no shortage of articles on the recent outrage at Hamline University. Subordination of the right for free speech and inquiry to religiously motivated censorship is a serious offense. At an educational institution, and a beneficiary of federal financial subsidy, a professor being removed after daring to simply show an image that contradicted conservative Islamic doctrine is unconscionable.

Many articles point out the baffling hypocrisy of a supposedly socially enlightened university bowing before the discontent of religious orthodoxy. Dozens comment on the ill-conceived student complaints, given the numerous “trigger warnings” issued expressly for those mercurial students who might find themselves disconcerted, and more than a few editorials emphasize the rapid pace with which the university administration concluded that eliminating the besieged professor from its faculty was the appropriate response.

At the center of this controversy is the painting of the Prophet Muhammad. As I read these articles, I could not help but reflect on what this incident signifies for the role of art in academic society. After all, the class in which the fraught painting was displayed was an art history course. It seems that too many of us students are under the false impression that viewing art is intended to always be a pleasurable and relaxing experience.

In the interest of “inclusivity,” there is a constant effort at educational institutions to shield students from “harm,” a mission so vague it tends to morph into an initiative to promote a constant walking on eggshells, lest even a single student become uncomfortable. 

Just two weeks into my first semester at the University of Michigan, I witnessed my first “inclusivity” effort in my English class. My professor, citing concerns over potentially upsetting students, made the decision to cancel one of our assigned readings — because the story included a scene of domestic violence. In order to shield us from such horror, the professor instead paraphrased the plot in class, taking care to pause and declare when the sensitive portion was being skipped.

Not only are university students infantilized by this persistent emphasis on protection from emotional harm, but they are being done a great disservice by the degraded quality of education. A newsletter by the journalist Jill Filipovic, republished by Slate on January 11, quoted a letter from the President of Hamline University, saying “We believe in academic freedom, but it should not and cannot be used to excuse away behavior that harms others.” If a painting is so powerful in its message that it could supposedly cause real and significant “harm” to those who look upon it, then it would be a great shame for it not to be examined in an art history class.

At Hamline University, the interests of infantilization and religious censorship coalesced. While these seem to be very separate issues, they are part of the same problem on college campuses. Students at universities today feel entitled to be protected from what they disagree with, and university administrations — searching for ways to tout their allegiance to so-called Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion — are eager to abet such entitlement.

Such entitlement ought to be squashed by a college education, not promoted. In the case of art, dismissing or censoring work one does not value represents a greater harm than any offense caused by the work itself. I myself have often learned the most from viewing artworks I unconditionally despise.

A few months ago, I had the unnerving experience of touring a photography exhibit devoted to portraits and menageries of nude individuals, posing in either religious spaces or surrounded by religious imagery. On any typical occasion, I would not find reason to be unsettled by revealing depictions of the human body in artistic works; I understand the value of studying and incorporating the nude form. However, it appeared to me as nudity for the sake of nudity — the most intimate features of the body distorted and peppered everywhere.

As I walked through the exhibit, the work took on an almost pornographic character, and the religious undertone felt contradictory and disrespectful. When I left, I felt as if I had witnessed societal decay manifest itself in photographs. I was quite offended, and perhaps if I had presented my case to the administration of Hamline University, they would claim that I was harmed — but I would disagree with their assessment.

Many of my family members also toured this exhibit, and I wasted little time in engaging them in discussion about what I had seen. To my surprise, some of my relatives had found the exhibit to be quite profound. What I interpreted as a reinforcement of the immodesty and moral decay I periodically bemoan, they saw as commentary on society and the artist’s struggle with religion. After this discussion, I could still despise the exhibit, but I could also appreciate the value of the work as a commentary and reflection of what I  denounce about current society. I now think of it as one of the most meaningful exhibits I have ever seen.

As long as we continue to define “harm” in such arbitrary terms, students are not entitled to be kept safe from harm in their college lecture halls. In fact, they are entitled to be harmed — because being challenged to engage with what you hate is perhaps one of the most edifying experiences an educational institution could provide.

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