1. Archive

USF art debate seen as textbook case

Published Oct. 18, 2005

The pictures are down, and hackles are up. Emotions are running high on all sides over the removal last week of seven provocative photographs from a student display at the University of South Florida (USF). But on one item, many agree:

In this age of Jesse Helms and 2 Live Crew, if the USF art department had wanted to invent a textbook example on the conflicts between content and censorship, it would have been hard-pressed to come up with a more vibrant and immediate case.

"I sort of see it as a little bit like everybody in the department, faculty and students alike, got enrolled in an extra course this semester without exactly asking for it," said assistant professor Lou Marcus.

"I think it's fantastic," said history major Janna Haynes, who trekked across campus to see the offending photos last week.

The photographs, by junior photography student Mark Wemple, included several images of a male-female couple, seemingly nude but wrapped in an American flag, posed in sexual positions. Two photographs showed the same woman alone, bound with a whip and blindfolded, the word "liberty" written across her bare chest.

Wemple, who used his girlfriend as one of the models, said he intended the photos as a symbolic commentary on censorship, sexuality and politics. He meant it as an homage to free speech.

Some faculty and students, however, saw the pictures as yet another careless parade of images that abuse and glorify violence against women. Their protests, along with mounting concerns about the location of this and other

controversial displays in a public hallway, led acting department chairman Bruce Marsh to take the photos down.

Marsh said he was simply acting to protect people who didn't want to come upon the photos unawares and to channel discussion into a symposium, scheduled for 7 tonight, that will display the photos and discuss the issues they raised.

Wemple and other students have charged that the photos were censored.

Whatever the opinion, the controversy has crystallized a clash of values between an artist's right of expression and a growing sense among some art historians and critics that some art is patently offensive.

One side says freedom is all. The other says the artist who offends must be prepared for the firestorm of criticism and even reprisals he or she may provoke.

Jo Ann Wein, a member of the art history faculty, says Wemple and several other student artists have been careless in their use of sadistic imagery that frightens and intimidates many women.

"I see leather jackets, I see black boots, I see whips used against women. ... My feeling is, if the artist is attempting to protest the censorship that we all deplore, then his symbolism is inappropriate to his message," Wein said.

Samia Halaby, a visiting teacher of painting and computer graphics, said artists must take fuller account of how their symbols are perceived.

"You can't use a swastika and say, "Oh, that's that wonderful symbol of symmetry I dreamed about last night.' ... If they won't take responsibility for their symbols, then we become suspicious of their intentions."

"We have heard your voice of criticism," says one graffiti message at the wall where the photos were removed. "Don't try to take away our voice of expression."

"You are allowed to speak out against violence," says another, "but pulling the prints is not speaking out, it is censorship."

Wein said she never intended the photos to be censored. In fact, she said she asked for tonight's symposium as an educational tool where the photos could be viewed and the conflict aired constructively. But the effectiveness of the photos' removal has not been lost on her or her colleagues.

"Before those photos were removed, we were just talking into the wind," Wein said. "It appears to have provoked the discussion that we were looking for."