Shades of Robert Mapplethorpe! The removal of seven provocative photographs from a student display at the University of South Florida (USF) has sparked a vigorous controversy on campus, with charges of censorship on one side and artistic irresponsibility on the other.
If that's what photography student Mark Wempel had in mind with his exhibit, he won't exactly say:
"I expected it to provoke some thoughts on the issues of censorship. But being an art school, I didn't think they would take it down."
Robert Mapplethorpe is the late photographer who was revered by some as an artist and accused by others of being obscene. A jury in Cincinnati ruled last month that seven of his most controversial photos were not obscene.
The controversy at USF peaked about 8 a.m. Wednesday. After several days of listening to heated complaints about the photos, Bruce Marsh, the acting chairman of the art department, unlocked the glass case where the pictures were mounted and removed them.
Marsh said Friday that he acted not as a censor, but out of consideration for the many people who said they were
offended by having to look at the photographs in a public hallway. The display case, traditionally controlled by students, is across from the art department's office door.
"They're not precluded from showing those photos," Marsh said. "They're precluded from showing them in this particular public place."
"They're trying to say they didn't censor the exhibit," Wempel responded. "But they did not provide an alternative space."
The pictures are a series of posed photographs involving a man and a woman, some of which appear to have a sadomasochistic theme. Wempel, who used his girlfriend as one of the models, said the photos are highly symbolic, and are meant to comment upon people's attitudes toward politics, sex, censorship and the treatment of women.
Some didn't see it that way. Marsh said there has been a growing sensitivity among both art students and faculty on how carelessly women have been treated by artists through the ages. Wempel's exhibit was the second in several weeks "that was interpreted by some people as being both demeaning to women and taking a cavalier attitude regarding violence toward women," Marsh said.
Marsh, a longtime member of the painting faculty who calls himself "an artist, not an administrator," said he was not offended by the photos.
But after consulting with other faculty members, who even disagreed among themselves, Marsh said, he decided on his own that a hallway where people might come upon the photos without warning was not an appropriate place to display them.
Wempel, a junior transfer from Tampa who spent two years at an art school in New York, said the people he has offended miss his whole point. "My work is about freedom of speech and censorship. One of the greatest wrongs that anyone has ever done to women is not to let them speak. My work is completely against all of that."
In any case, a vigorous graffiti campaign, pro and con, is going on at the wall where the photos were taken down. Classroom talk has been full of it.
And Marsh has organized a panel discussion for Tuesday evening on the "colliding issues" raised by the exhibit. Wempel and some of his critics will be among the panelists.
And the seven photographs will be on display.