Censored by SCAD

Censored by SCAD
This image was censored by SCAD administration; Photograph by Nicole Craine

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The "chilling effect" destroys discourse before it starts

Cinqué Hicks
Cinqué Hicks believes the public
has both the right and the
duty to call out institutions, even
private ones, that have
the power to set the terms
of what art counts and
what art doesn't

Cinqué Hicks wrote a spot-on editorial on Creative Loafing's site about the "chilling effect," or what happens when a culture of fear causes a society to self censor expression or speech before any offense could possibly be made (or not made).

This is precisely what has happened at SCAD, and what I and others have been fighting to change. SCAD has been attempting to isolate and placate individual outbreaks of dissent regarding its censorship practices by justifying their actions under benign umbrella causes. Dr. Griffis, associate VP at SCAD Atlanta tried to slough off the Open Studio censoring as strictly a quality issue. While it's not possible to say whether there were artworks removed for legitimate quality standards (there were several removed), in Nicole's case this has been refuted by faculty members and even the head of the department. It was not a quality issue.

They've offered promises that they'll change, that there are policies in effect that they'll monitor more closely to make sure this never happens again, that it was the professors' fault (many of whom I spoke with in various departments had no knowledge of these policies, even several heads of those departments). We promise, they say.

Yet they won't put any of those promises into any tangible form that has accountability. It's easier to assuage individual students into submission until they graduate and the problem (for SCAD) goes away.

The problem at SCAD does not lie in isolated individual occurrences, but in the greater culture of fear created through this censorship. As Hicks puts it, "Threats of censorship from above would seem like child's play compared to the self-censorship that arises out of a fear over what might happen if you say something someone doesn't like."

And this is what happens at SCAD, and this is what needs to change.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Pipe bombs, suicides, SVA, lawsuits and conspiracies, oh my! SCAD's turbulent 90s

After hearing a lot of talk about the SCAD student revolt back in the 90s, and how this was the source of SCAD's raw nerves regarding dissent or unrest of any kind, I was naturally intrigued. First of all, I wanted to find out what really happened. Second, I wanted to see if there could be any lessons learned from the experience. What was the cause? What was the reaction?

Finding out more information proved difficult, mostly offhand mentions but nothing detailed. Then I came across an article in the web archives by Warren St. John, published in a 1993 issue of Lingua Franca. It is incredibly in depth, and incredibly bizarre. It ranges from the Rowans' founding of SCAD in 1978 to the "war" with SVA and the subsequent (and numerous) lawsuits. The article is long but engrossing, and well worth the time to read for those interested in the history of SCAD. I offer quoted excerpts below to hopefully entice you into reading the whole thing.

This is posted purely for convenience and factual information sharing. The article is freely available on the internet through a quick Google search. I do not endorse its claims, I'm simply reposting that which already exists.

The full article can be found here: http://web.archive.org/web/19980128004930/linguafranca.com/9607/Savannah.html

of an elegant antebellum mansion in Savannah, Georgia, when she saw a plume of smoke. It was October 1991, the fall semester of her second year as a graduate student at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and Lansaw was living as a nanny-or as her employer liked to say, a "governess"-at the home of the Chatham County coroner. It was a suitably morbid place from which to view the disturbing events that would soon take place around her.
Lansaw got up and followed the smoke out the back door and down Whitaker Street. A black cloud billowed up from behind a wooden fence. Lansaw climbed a flight of town house stairs, stood on her tiptoes to get a view, then saw it: a crumpled body, burning atop a pile of rags. Because of the body's location, and the blackened remnants of a cardigan sweater and wire-rim glasses, she immediately recognized the man as Juan Bertotto, an affable architecture professor at her school. Later that day, the college's president, Richard Rowan, called a meeting in response to the professor's suicide. "The initial inclination was how can we keep this quiet?" recalled a faculty member who was at the meeting. "But there was simply no way to do that in a town like Savannah."
Bertotto's death, and the nervous reaction of administrators at the Savannah College of Art and Design-or SCAD, as it's known locally-prompted Lansaw and her student colleagues to question their school and the eerily paranoid atmosphere on campus. Their subsequent prying into administration dealings set in motion one of the more bizarre tales in contemporary academia, one replete with pipe bombs, surveillance campaigns, and multimillion-dollar lawsuits. When the unrest ultimately led a competing art school to open a campus in Savannah's moss-draped historic district-just blocks away from SCAD-the result was, in the words of one participant, "all-out war." SCAD administrators reacted with a ruthlessness more becoming to a corporate behemoth than to an institution of higher learning. In doing so, they set Savannah on its ear. "It's the story of a school that tore a town apart," said an attorney involved in the dispute.
Student prying put the administration in a panic. Paula Rowan called an emergency faculty meeting and told her staff that students were obviously "bored." She ordered professors to assign more homework. 
On April 6, 1992, as Lansaw and other student leaders were at a late-night meeting, putting together a draft of a proposed student government constitution, an astonishing event occurred: A pipe bomb exploded in front of the Rowans' offices in a town house at 201 West Charlton Street.
The vote did nothing to placate the Rowans. Shaken by the bombing, they rejected the student constitution and in late April blocked the registration of three student leaders "pending completion of the investigation by the various government authorities of the vandalism that has occurred." According to the ATF, these students were no more suspects than any other students or administrators, but the Rowans, it seemed, had prejudged their guilt and refused to let them re-enroll.
When the Rowans suspended the three student leaders after the bombings, they hardly knew what they were getting into. The students-Richard Averitt, an art history student named Marissa Magaz, and Rick Fisher, the videographer-believed that by implicating them in the bombing investigation, SCAD had defamed them. Through the ACLU, they located an attorney who agreed. Two days before graduation that spring, the students filed a $12.4-million lawsuit charging SCAD with slander and defamation.

Meanwhile, SCAD professors, inspired by the students, began to press for their own representative body. Faculty had to tread lightly in their reform effort-or risk not being "renewed"-so secret meetings were held off campus, some beneath the bowers of Savannah's old squares. A faculty senate was formed in late May and almost immediately passed a resolution in support of the blocked students. The Rowans had no sympathy for the professors' act of solidarity and reacted with swift fury: A week before graduation, they sacked twelve professors active in the faculty senate movement-including David Stout, who had first proclaimed, "SCAD is a school, not a conspiracy." (The firings eventually prompted the American Association of University Professors to censure the school.)
Batman Varnedoe, together with Jim Rogers [...] figured there were enough disgruntled faculty and students at SCAD to form their own school. Rather than start from scratch, they decided to court an established college to open a branch in Savannah. They called a number of colleges to propose the scenario and drafted a letter that promised prospective schools a ready-made faculty and student body if they came to town. Under the heading CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION, the letter stressed that SCAD's "painting faculty has voted unanimously to come over to the new school. They believe they can bring all 250 of their students."
The School of Visual Arts is a New York institution with a sophisticated cosmopolitan image. [...] But then [David Rhodes, SVA president] began to look into an expansion of SVA, and for ways to provide an intimate, personalized atmosphere, which was absent from the cramped and hectic New York campus. An affiliated campus in a more quiet locale, he thought, might be the remedy.  [...] On May 24, 1993, Varnedoe set up a press conference at which Rhodes announced his decision to open an SVA campus in Savannah. To Paula Rowan, the news was "a total surprise."
If the Rowans could definitively link the activities of all their critics, perhaps they could be eliminated by a single atomic bomb of a lawsuit.
In February 1993, SCAD filed a $103-million lawsuit against SVA, alleging the New York school had masterminded or at least benefited from the elaborate scheme. SCAD sued for conspiracy and "tortious interference," the same legal theory tobacco companies have used to threaten the media and whistle-blowers.
"The students had been told they were criminals," he said. "But we told them they had done what the Constitution of the United States mandates." Leonard Minsky gave them moral support, while Beth, an attorney, proposed a strategy. Rather than simply defend the "conspirators," she would charge that all of SCAD's quirks-the questionable role of the board of trustees, the absence of tenure, the offering of an allegedly specious degree in art history, the false promise of a functioning student government-amounted to a "racket" set up for the personal gain of Richard and Paula Rowan. And she would do so using a powerful legal instrument-the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. Under Georgia RICO laws, damages are tripled, and the beneficiaries of a RICO enterprise can be removed from their positions.
And so much more.

Speak up! 

SCAD administration has already shown that it is receptive to changes, so add your voice to the discussion!

Monday, November 29, 2010

SCAD uninterested in class on censorship issues in the arts

In Spring 2009, Claire Moynihan, a lawyer and commercial arbitrator in Atlanta, submitted a proposal to develop a class for SCAD students on censorship in the visual arts.

She received no reply.

Below is her proposal. Her blog is now open to the public: whatsrightwiththispicture.blogspot.com/

                         April 8, 2009 
Teresa M. Griffis, Ph.D.
Chief Academic Director
Savannah College of Art and Design-Atlanta 
            Re: Censorship and the Visual Arts,
                  A Proposed Special Topics Course
Dear Dr. Griffis: 
SCAD is on the cutting edge of arts education globally, and I have a concept for a Special Topics Course to be taught at the SCAD-Atlanta campus, which I hope you agree, fits into SCAD’s mission. I am a lawyer and a commercial arbitrator practicing in Midtown, with particular interest in the arts and in First Amendment issues. Enclosed find an article featuring my office, from “LawSpace,” in 2005, a page from the Bar’s Pro Bono Honor Roll, as well as my construction arbitration resume.  
My proposal is for a course on Censorship and the Visual Arts, to be presented to SCAD-Atlanta students using a  “case method” materials format and a (not rigidly, but generally) Socratic dialogue classroom style of instruction.  This approach, historically employed in American law programs, promotes critical thinking, so important to the foundations and discussion of controversial images.  “Censorship” as used in this course should be understood very broadly, and would include, without limitation, instances of official government censorship, curatorial and editorial discretion, economic censorship, advertising and other trade regulations, self-censorship and even vandalism—any restrictions on transmittal of artistic expression, and those restrictions can be nuanced and take many forms.  Cases and materials would be supplemented with a collection of ‘current issues’—images whose display or publication has caused recent controversy--which may be viewed on a blog platform, WhatsRightWithThisPicture,.  I have copied a selection of images from the blog onto the enclosed cd.  Some are benign and some are startling; all are interesting. If you wish to view the blog, which includes images as well as my notes and links, simply please call, or email me at xxxxxx@xxxxxx.com, and I will provide you with a temporary access token, and password.  Currently, the blog is open by invitation only to a few artists and lawyers.  
I understand that SCAD’s mission is, in part, to provide a bridge from academia to professional life for its students; and that SCAD has an eye toward the future.   I believe this course proposal could fit in well with that mission.  If this proposal is of interest, then please do not hesitate to contact me, or suggest the name of the most appropriate person at SCAD-Atlanta with whom I might speak in more detail.  Thank you for your consideration.

Claire Moynihan 
As an innovator in all areas, and with an open and honest student-centric policy, why was SCAD uninterested in developing a class on censorship in the arts? There are likely varied and complex reasons.

Do you think SCAD should have a class on censorship?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Pretty Police and the SCAD Atlanta Open Studio Protest

Posters announcing the censorship of images during 
Open Studio were confiscated by SCAD authorities.
This past Thursday night, during Open Studio, a group of students and community members wore posters pinned or taped to their clothing. Each of the posters espoused one of SCAD's 8 official values: Being a student-centered institution, going the "extra mile," being innovative and results-oriented, sustaining a respectful and honest college environment, among others. Below was an image of a male nude, with a white CENSORED bar over the genitals (one of the works censored from the Open Studio show). There was then an invitation to this website to continue the discussion.

Protestors were able to make a few rounds of the floor before SCAD administration asked "kindly" to remove the messages from our clothing or leave the premises. When administration was asked for a reason, we were told he didn't have to give a reason because SCAD was private property, though he would be happy to speak with any of the artists whose work was removed from the show. We complied with his request by either leaving or removing the posters from our bodies. Some of us chose to stay to continue to discuss and raise awareness of the censorship issue. Later in the evening we were confronted by an angry woman in a red SCAD shirt, seen in the image below. She demanded that we either give her our papers, or be escorted out by security. In the image, you can see her with our confiscated property, explaining to a bystander in the yellow shirt why she was taking the flyers. I couldn't hear her reason. She wouldn't give us one. 

A SCAD representative explains to a visitor why she has confiscated her flyer.

Open Studio is SCAD Atlanta's biggest event of the year. The following is a description of the event, quoted directly from SCAD's press release, with emphasis added to a key sentence:
"ATLANTA—The annual SCAD Open Studio Night will take place 7-9 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 11, at SCAD Atlanta, 1600 Peachtree St. The event features more than 200 original works by SCAD students, faculty and alumni. The evening showcases the best of SCAD painting, photography, illustration, printmaking and sculpture. All work exhibited is available for sale. Guests also are invited to visit the university’s studio spaces and experience hands-on demonstrations by students.
Open Studio Night is free and open to the public, with complimentary on-site parking provided."
There is a colloquial expression frequently associated with SCAD-sponsored events or exhibitions: The Pretty Police.

The Pretty Police are SCAD's censorship arm. Their job is to patrol artwork in exhibits that have already been juried and accepted by either faculty or a selection panel, and remove anything they don't like. Anything that won't look good on a press release. Anything not "pretty." This is all very hush-hush of course, and no one dares to speak about it. Faculty are contractually obligated not to, and students feel pressured not to speak out for fear of reprisal by the mighty SCAD Administration.

A community member
spreading the word
The truth is, unless it's happened to you or someone you know, you probably aren't even aware of the Pretty Police's existence. Though, if you're a student at SCAD, it's very possible you've encountered them and not even known it. Consider the following: Are you an excellent student? Do you make work that faculty considers exemplary? Is your work challenging? Perhaps a bit (or a lot) edgy? Are you then sometimes confused when your work is passed over for selection? It's not unlikely that a seasoned faculty member has tried to spare you some pain by beating the Pretty Police to the punch.

Among the SCAD community, there seems to be a prevalent attitude of, "yeah, it sucks that it happens, but what can you do?" Indeed, what can you do? Faculty are sympathetic, but bound contractually to not speak out against SCAD. Students are afraid of being blacklisted or suspended. If they speak up or make trouble, SCAD might not allow any of their work into SCAD shows. That's an enormous amount of potential exposure lost. If they play nice, or make work that couldn't be considered offensive to anyone, then exposure through SCAD's promotional system could be a huge boost to a budding artist's career.
"Through censorship, the message that SCAD is sending to students is, 'To be successful, you must mitigate your work.'"
The danger then lies in the message that SCAD is sending to students, "To be successful, you must mitigate your work." In the business of art, be it fine or commercial, all we have to separate us from our competition is our ideas. Anyone can buy a camera, download software, follow some online tutorials and then be able to compete in the global marketplace. The same is true for just about any creative discipline. When access to the tools of the trade no longer separate the professional from the amateur, we must rely on the strength and creativity of our ideas. This is why we pay exorbitant tuition to attend an art school like SCAD. To foster, hone and enhance our ideas.

SCAD's mission statement is, "The Savannah College of Art and Design exists to prepare talented students for professional careers, emphasizing learning through individual attention in a positively oriented university environment." How then do we, as students, reconcile the disparity between promised service and provided service? When, to prepare for a professional career, we must strengthen, innovate and push our ideas so that we can stand out and be successful in our chosen field. Yet through action we are told that we shouldn't strengthen and sharpen our ideas, we should instead soften our message to better fit within the majority hump of the bell curve. The bell curve does not innovate. The bell curve does not progress our country to continue to be a global leader. Outliers do. Those on the outside, who are not afraid to speak truth, no matter how tender the nerve nor inconvenient the message. Those like the student body at SCAD.
We must speak up, no matter how inconvenient. Send us your censored images and stories: censoredartists@gmail.com
We cannot remain silent any longer. We must speak up, no matter how inconvenient it may be. Send your censored images and stories so that we may post them. There is strength in numbers. They can't silence everyone. Through precedent, SCAD has shown that it values it's reputation and appearance above all else. If only one or two speak up, they can continue to swat at the annoying flies, ignore the issue and carry on, business as usual. If we all speak up, they must make amends. Punishing students for speaking the truth? It's a valid concern. Many of us rely on our scholarships to be able to afford SCAD. Will they take them away? Will they suspend us? Will they blacklist us from shows?

A flyer depicting a censored image taped to a work that was not censored.
In response to arguments that as SCAD property, they can show or not show whatever they darn well please: yes, it's true. It is their property. They can censor all they want. But they shouldn't. This is an art school, and censorship goes against the promise of service to which we mutually and contractually agree by paying and receiving tuition. SCAD is a service provider, no different than a paid cable company. If cable companies started arbitrarily blocking whole channels, that they promised to air when you paid the fee to gain access to their service, because they objected to the content shown there would be uproar. Why is there none here, when the stakes are so much higher?

In response to the oft-given explanation, "High schoolers walk through the halls, they shouldn't see anything objectionable." Seriously? High schoolers can have access to anything they want on the internet. They can walk through any museum in the world and see challenging content. Including penises. But SCAD will not allow any penises to be seen by the public in any officially-sanctioned distribution channel. No matter the work's artistic value. Is there something wrong with the public knowing that men have a penis between their legs?
We are calling for the Pretty Police and SCAD's policy on administrative censorship to be suspended.
Rather than promoting innovation, SCAD is stifling it trough this policy. We are calling for the Pretty Police and SCAD's policy on administrative censorship to be suspended. If a work of art is exemplary enough to be selected by faculty or a juried review board for inclusion in an exhibition, then that work shall be included in said exhibition unaltered.

As a, "student-centered institution," SCAD art exhibits should not be glossy brochures for SCAD investors, filled with student-created content. They should hold fast to SCAD's own sales pitch, and foster true innovation and honesty by showcasing all exemplary work, not just the pretty ones.

SAC #2

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Open letter to SCAD students, faculty and patrons

CENSORSHIP is the suppression of speech or deletion of communicative material, which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or inconvenient to the government, media organizations, or public as determined by a censor.

Dear SCAD students, faculty, and patrons,

We would like to start this letter by quoting SCAD’s mission, vision, and values:

SCAD Mission

The Savannah College of Art and Design exists to prepare talented students for professional careers, emphasizing learning through individual attention in a positively oriented university environment. 

SCAD Vision

The Savannah College of Art and Design, an institution with distinctive yet complementary locations, will be recognized as a leader in defining art and design education. By employing innovation in all areas, SCAD will provide a superior education through talented and dedicated faculty and staff, leading-edge technology, advanced learning resources and comprehensive support services.

SCAD Values
  • Being a student-centered institution.
  • Providing an exceptional education and life-changing experience for students.
  • Demonstrating quality and excellence in every aspect of operations.
  • Sustaining a respectful and honest college environment.
  • Growing while continually improving.
  • Being innovative and results-oriented.
  • Promoting a cooperative team spirit and a positive "can-do" attitude.
  • Going the “extra mile.”

Censorship or removal of student work is resisting a “student-centered environment.” As artists, we are dedicated to applying our thoughts and abilities so that we may partake in the production of knowledge and the creation of historical ideas and artifacts. We came to this school to learn about art and thrive in a “positively oriented university environment” that allows us to push boundaries, raise the bar of expectation for others and “grow” to our full potential. As working (and paying) students, we should be able to express our ideas with the support of the SCAD faculty and administration. Censoring student work limits students’ ability to create and discuss artwork and ideas freely and openly. Our college sets an example for other facilities, institutions, and exhibition spaces to follow. In an “honest college environment,” students should feel comfortable to submit and create work that they feel is successful and relevant to contemporary standards. Art education needs to include and promote communication and critical discussion between artists. SCAD possesses the power to expose students’ work to the general public and gain attention for our efforts and the talents we possess. If an art-centered facility in which we create our artwork and ideas will not recognize and exhibit our talent, then who will?

"Remember: defending someone’s right to speak doesn’t mean you agree with what they say. Defending the right to read a particular book, or view a work of art or a film, doesn’t mean you like it or agree with its message. Recognizing that others have different views about art, politics, literature and religion, and that their views are entitled to the same respect and protection as your own, is a form of tolerance required of all in a pluralistic society."
-National Coalition Against Censorship