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Polk State College deems explicit anti-Trump art “too controversial” for campus display

Free speech and anti-censorship groups have stepped in, calling on the college to stop “childproofing” free expression.

The artwork in question runs wider than the average wingspan.

It's an intricate study in contrasts, where on the right, great thinkers and poets mingle in a grayscale garden of Eden, while on the left, President Donald Trump and a battalion of clones perform explicit sexual acts in a dizzying orgy.

This is the piece Serhat Tanyolacar submitted to a Polk State College faculty art fair.

"Too controversial," the college said.

Now free speech and anti-censorship groups have stepped in, calling on the college to stop "childproofing" free expression. Tayolacar, who left Turkey in 2003 in part because of its chokehold on free speech, said he pressed Polk State leaders to explain their thinking but only got muddled answers citing "too much" controversy.

"But they didn't tell me what defines that 'too much,'" he said. "I pushed more and more, and there was no answer."

A spokeswoman at Polk State declined to comment.

Tanyolacar's laser-engraved relief print, called "Death of Innocence," presents a moral dichotomy, the artist explained. (Here is the whole piece.)

The left side, with all of its graphic excess and repetition, represents "the morality of the Trump era," featuring other political figures such as Betsy DeVos and Vladimir Putin in compromising positions. The right side, a peaceful collage featuring faces like Pablo Neruda, Sylvia Plath and the fictional Atticus Finch, represents "the reality I would like to enjoy."

The work has already been on display locally, showing up last fall in a personal exhibition in the University of South Florida's Marshall Student Center. Faculty and administrators were happy to support him, Tanyolacar said.

"To be honest, I didn't think there would be any issues displaying this work," Tanyolacar said.

But then Polk rejected it.

In January, the college had encouraged arts faculty to submit works to an upcoming exhibition. Tanyolacar said the call for entries didn't include specific criteria.

"After review by the gallery committee and the gallery administrator it was agreed upon that your piece Death of Innocence should not be displayed," program coordinator Nancy Lozell wrote to Tanyolacar. That's because the college "offers classes and volunteer opportunities to our collegiate charter high schools and other high schools in Polk county and we feel that that particular piece would be too controversial to display at this time."

Then the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education stepped in, as did the National Coalition Against Censorship. They wrote to the college's president and asking her to look at Tanyolacar's artwork in a viewpoint-neutral way.

"Members of the Polk State campus are not children, and they should not be treated as such," FIRE senior program officer Sarah McLaughlin said in a statement, chiding Polk state for "underestimating (students') ability to cope with contentious or provocative artwork."

The gallery opened Feb. 12 without Tanyolacar's piece.

Last Friday, Tanyolacar talked about his piece with some Polk State leaders, who stood by their decision.

"I asked, 'Would you display the work again?' and the response was, 'No, we had our final decision,'" he said.

He said he believes that the college may be acting out of fear of damage to its reputation.

It took seven tedious months to craft the piece, which started in thousands of digital layers painstakingly arranged on Photoshop, and was then printed with a rustic, old-school photograph feel. Trump's face appears in countless poses.

"All the mistakes, all the controversial statements from the White House, they repeat themselves just like a copycat," the artist said. "You repeat one thing over and over and over again, you can make your subject numb, you can train them. … How much morality can be changed, altered, under completely immoral and unethical individuals?"

Tayolacar, who is 40, teaches art part-time at Polk State. This isn't his first time courting controversy.

In 2014, teaching at the University of Iowa, he printed newspaper clippings about racial violence on a Ku Klux Klan-style robe and hood, then displayed it on campus and talked with students about it.

Some students complained, and university administrators told Tanyolacar to take it down. FIRE and NCAC got involved with that case, too.

Ari Cohn, an attorney with FIRE, said the refusal to display politically charged art flies in the face of what art is supposed to be. And he said the justification of shielding high schoolers struck him as disingenuous given the political climate.

"What high schooler did not hear the recordings of Trump telling someone that he grabbed women by the p—-?" Cohn said. "If children can handle that on the nightly news then it seems to be a stretch to claim that Serhat's artwork is somehow scandalous for children."

As for claims that the work is pornographic, Cohn said, "You'd probably have to rename a lot of art museums as pornography museums."

Contact Claire McNeill at or (727) 893-8321.