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USF artist tells crowd he sees both sides of debate

Perhaps the biggest surprise at Tuesday night's symposium on art and censorship occurred when artist Mark Wemple made his opening statement. He didn't swagger forth, asserting his right to say whatever he pleased. He did explain his photographs and what he meant to convey. And he said he has since learned how he might have given some people quite a different, more offensive impression, of glorifying violence against women.

"I had no intention for these symbols to be thought of like that," he said. "I can see now where people would get that idea."

Thus, with a polite bow to his critics, was engaged the climax of a weeklong debate surrounding the removal of Wemple's photos from a student display at the University of South Florida.

It was just as clear, as the sometimes heated two-hour discussion continued, that what bothered many students and some faculty was not the criticism of Wemple's photographs, but the fact that they were summarily removed.

"The right to choose to see or not to see was taken away," said Wemple's photography professor, Victoria Hirt.

"The only way to learn from both sides is for the art to be visible," said a student in the crowd.

"The work is up (now) for criticism," countered professor Samia Halaby. "You're getting it. What are you complaining about?"

Not all of the debate was so simple and direct.

Some took heart in the spectacle of more than 200 students and teachers, packed into a lecture hall well past normal hours, passionately arguing the finer points of aesthetic objectivity and deconstructivist theory. To them, it seemed as if the university had come alive.

Others complained about the more usual apathy, including the fact that a student-run gallery at the University Center often lacks work to exhibit.

Halaby and fellow professor Jo Ann Wein said later that it didn't seem that many other students were receptive to the protests they were trying to raise.

"I am against censorship," said Halaby. "I am equally opposed to sexual and racial violence and intimidation."

Another student, who described himself as a black gay man, said he resented being told what should offend him and what shouldn't.

Wemple said his main goal now is to obtain a place from the art department where students outside the classroom can display their work in progress and get comments.

Bruce Marsh, acting chairman of the department, said he'll discuss it with the faculty Friday.