Letter to the editor
I had intended to keep my thoughts about the “Whites Only” signs to myself until I read the letter to the Spectrum by Jonathan D. Katz, Chair of the Art Department. While I appreciate Professor Katz’s concern for committed and socially conscious art I would like to respond to his comments.
First, Ashley Powell demonstrated remarkable courage and integrity in coming forward and acknowledging that she had posted the “whites only” signs. And particular, her doing so at a meeting of African-American students who were outraged by the signs. It will not surprise me at all if Ms. Powell goes on to have a successful and impactful career as an artist.
However, I must take issue with statements made in her defense by her and by others in the UB Art Department. Art has real world consequences, and you cannot have it both ways. When the signs first appeared, most people reasonably concluded that they were put up by a racist individual or organization. The thought that such a person or group was in our midst was a source of pain and anguish, not only among African-Americans but among anyone in our community who abhors racism. At the time she came forward, she said something to the effect of: “I regret that my acts caused pain and anguish to other students, but I do not regret posting the signs.” This is an illogical statement. Either you regret the pain and anguish that this signs (predictably) caused and therefore regret posting them; or you do not regret posting the signs or the pain that they caused. You cannot have it both ways. Calling this act an art project does not exempt it from the moral universe. I suspect that this is at the heart of the letters to Prof. Katz castigating “art for art’s sake.”
I don’t doubt for a minute that Ms. Powell’s motivation was to raise consciousness on campus of the issue of racism. But an artist’s motivation does not necessarily control to impact that the work has. The most notorious incident at the University of Missouri involved a swastika made of feces which was scrawled on the wall of a dormitory. No one took “credit” for this act, and it is safe to presume that the person who did it was expressing his or her anti-Semitic and racist beliefs. Should we consider the swastika as art? If so, does that fact absolve the “artist” of wrongdoing? What if, after the fact, the “artist” came forward and said (s)he was trying to make a point about racism on campus? Is art only exempt from condemnation when the artist’s intent is progressive?
I would welcome a dialogue about racism on this campus. Getting the problem out in the open and talking about it is a good first step. When I was an undergraduate at Canisius College many, many years ago, a series of racial incidents led faculty to declare a day of reflection. Numerous teach-ins were held, and the upshot was an overwhelming consensus against racism and racists. It would be wonderful if that were the outcome here.
What concerns me most about this situation is that neither Ms. Powell’s teacher nor the chair of her department seems to appreciate why anyone would be upset over what she did. There is an underlying sense that “we the artists need to educate you the ignorant public about what is right and wrong.” Such arrogance inevitably leads to stupid decisions.
Very truly yours,
Joseph L. Gerken, Reference Librarian
University at Buffalo Law Library