The Blasphemer

PG note: There’s language in the OP that PG decided to leave in place for this particular post.

When the Iranian American artist Taravat Talepasand, an assistant professor of art at Portland State University, made the works included in her first retrospective, at Macalester College’s Law Warschaw Gallery, she knew some religious sensibilities might be bruised. Her “Blasphemy” series of graphite drawings, for instance, announces in its title an anticlerical intention expressed both in that series’ images of a conservatively clad woman wearing a hijab in ironically salacious postures and in much of her other work as well: striking, confrontational pieces borrowing from both pornography and propaganda, with titles like “Fuck This Shit” and “Death to Bitches!”

What she didn’t expect was that, just a few days after the exhibition opened on January 27, Macalester’s administration would “pause” — their word — the show in deference to the demands of student protesters. On February 3, Lisa Anderson-Levy, executive vice president and provost, and Alina Wong, vice president for institutional equity, sent an email explaining the situation. “We write today,” they began, “with respect, compassion, and responsibility.” In practice, that responsibility meant that when “Muslim students in our community thoughtfully expressed their reactions to the exhibit,” the administration temporarily closed it down. They also installed blackout curtains over the gallery’s glass windows so that no one might look inside. “The pause,” they wrote, “provides space for members of our community who expressed pain caused by pieces in the exhibition, and makes space for conversation and consideration of the multiple perspectives and experiences of Muslim communities on campus and their interactions with the exhibition.”

Anderson-Levy and Wong promised to reopen the gallery on Monday, February 6, and they have been true to their word. Some changes have been made: A sign affixed to the entrance warns that “the exhibition … contains images of sexuality and violence that may be upsetting or unacceptable for some visitors”; new frosted-glass panels on the second floor largely obscure the previously available view down into the first. This might seem like a win for both academic and artistic freedom. Students protested; the administration listened but did not acquiesce. True, the protesting students may not always have been as “thoughtful” as the administrators suggested — Talepasand told me that one reason she was given by gallery director Heather Everhart for the “pause,” which went into effect without her knowledge, is that protestors were absconding with all of the exhibition catalogs and making student gallery workers feel unsafe — but all things considered, this was a good outcome. (Neither Everhart, Anderson-Levy nor Wong was made available to talk with me.)

The case is striking, though, for how neatly it encapsulates the increasing integration on campuses of two traditions apparently at odds: religious conservatism and the DEI imperatives of inclusion and harm reduction, especially around visual and verbal representations. That alliance is not entirely novel — the legal feminist Catharine A. MacKinnon’s collaboration in the 1980s with conservative Christian politicians on antipornography legislation comes to mind. But that partnership didn’t get far, in part because of its essentially incompatible ideological ingredients. The language of diversity, equity, and inclusion, conversely, has proven remarkably adaptable to a wide range of groups. For the foreseeable future, protests like the one against Talepasand’s irreligious art are here to stay. How did we get here?

. . . .

A student petition condemning the show objects specifically to these images. “The hijab is a symbol of god [sic] and faith to billions of Muslims everywhere.” Moreover, “the decision to display and continue to display this exhibition despite the harm it perpetuates is a deeply problematic issue. It is targeting and harming an already small community that exists on this campus.” Elsewhere, a student lamented “the objectification, fetishization and overt sexualization of hijabi women,” which has supposedly “contributed to the rise of sexual assault against Muslim women. It is DISGUSTING, DEGRADING, AND DEHUMANIZING.” And on Talepasand’s Instagram page, a student lectured her this way: “The students at Macalester gathered to have a conversation about the hurt and harm your work has caused … Rather than taking a step back, being in conversation with the community about your work and addressing your own potential bias[,] you decided to go onto Instagram and cry about being ‘silenced.’ … That was fucking immature of you … Disrespectfully, grow the fuck up.”

Link to the rest at The Chronicle of Higher Education

PG visited Macalester a very long time ago. It is typical of a significant number of small private liberal arts colleges that dot the Midwestern United States. Located in St. Paul, Minnesota, it was founded by a Presbyterian minister during the late 1800’s.

PG wonders why nobody in the Macalester administration was aware that this sort of art display would generate substantial pushback from young radicals on and off campus, including offended Muslims.