By STEVEN A. HOLMES
Published: December 6, 1989 on The New york Times
An angry debate has erupted at the New School for Social Research after a caricature of a black man the school was displaying in an art show was defaced by an instructor who branded the work racist.
While some faculty members and students consider the instructor’s act a legitimate protest against a racist art work, others view its destruction as understandable but unjustified censorship.
At the center of the debate is a question that has been argued in Washington, New York and elsewhere in recent months: Is freedom of expression an inviolable right, or should limits be placed on it when art or speech is offensive. ‘Who Decides What Is Appropriate’
The New School administration used the standard of artistic freedom in allowing the disputed drawing to continue to be displayed, and its actions were supported by many students and faculty.
”I understand the sensitivity of the issue, but by censoring a piece of art, you are setting a precedent for censoring all art,” said Faith Dunn, a white communications design student who is editor of the Parsons Paper, a student newspaper at the Parsons School of Design, one of the New School’s seven colleges in Manhattan and where the exhibition was held.
”If you are going to start defacing art you don’t think is appropriate, where do you stop? And who decides what is appropriate?” Ms. Dunn asked. ‘Strong Passions on All Sides’
Critics say the administration is elevating freedom of expression to too exhalted a position, and that other freedoms, like the right to be free from intolerance and racial bias, should be given equal weight.
”Freedom of expression is no more sacred than freedom from intolerance or bigotry,” said John Jeffries, a black who is the associate dean of the New School’s Graduate School of Management and Urban Professions.
The incident has also forced the New School, a Greenwich Village institution with a reputation for social liberalism, to face accusations that its decision to allow the picture to be displayed has, in effect, institutionalized racism. ”There are strong passions on all sides,” said Jonathan F. Fanton, a white and the New School’s President. ”I’ve heard a lot of things in the last couple of weeks that I don’t like; all the way from very harsh judgments of the person who defaced the work to very harsh judgments of the unversity and me for not having taken it down.”
The incident occurred last month at the Exhibition Center at the Parsons School of Design. On display was a tiny, black and white copy of a drawing of a black man whose face is dominated by the whites of his eyes and white lips. It is a caricature similar to those popular in old minstral shows. The drawing was part of a 1983 advertising campaign for a Japanese soft drink and was created by the Japanese artist Shin Matsunaga. It was one of 350 works by Mr. Matsunaga that were exhibited by the Parson’s gallery from Oct. 18 through Nov. 17.
Three days before the show’s closing, Sekou Sundiata, a musician and poet who teaches at the New School, drew a large blue X across the figure in the print. On the mounting above the picture, he wrote that the poster was racist and signed his name.
”The New School doesn’t have the right to invite someone into my community to insult me,” said Mr. Sundiata, who is black. ”Matsunaga can say or draw whatever he wants, but you don’t have to invite him in.” ‘Deeply Offensive and Racist’
Later, about 40 students showed their approval of Mr. Sundiata’s action by writing their names on the mounting and across the print itself. Students and faculty members also demonstrated outside the gallery and met Mr. Fanton to express their anger over the school’s decision to hang the poster.
Mr. Fanton responded to the defacing of the print by mailing a six-page letter to all students and faculty. In his letter, Mr. Fanton said he felt the print was ”deeply offensive and racist.” But, citing resolutions adopted by the school’s board of directors concerning the free exchange of ideas and artistic freedom, Mr. Fanton stood by the ”decision to leave the offensive piece in the exhibition.”
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