On university campuses littered with symbols of sexism and racism, it can be convenient to think that simply acknowledging the sins canonized in artworks or committed by the namesakes of buildings is a solution. After all, talking about them is far easier than removing or replacing them.
From the University of Mississippi to Princeton, when protestors have demanded the dismantling of emblems, administrators have promised to “contextualize” them instead—but how do you footnote a statue or a building that students walk by everyday? This is one of the questions driving a debate at the University of Virginia, where a small group plans to gather Wednesday to “critique” a mural called “The Student’s Progress.” (Update, April 27, 2016: The protest has been canceled.) The artwork, by the painter Lincoln Perry, fills the foyer and stairwell of the music department’s Old Cabell Hall and depicts a redheaded violinist’s imaginary journey through the school. In January 2015, UVA formed a committee to review it, driven by criticism of two of its panels. One shows “a male faculty member standing on a porch and tossing a mostly naked student her bra as his beleaguered wife comes up the stairs,” as UVA music professor Bonnie Gordon put it previously in Slate. Another portrays a bacchanal scene, with an apparently unconscious female student being hoisted from her armpits by a male peer at its center.
Some faculty members are concerned that to walk through Old Cabell Hall—which holds the school’s primary auditorium and is a preferred venue for hosting prospective students and visiting speakers—is to see a vision of campus culture not so distinct from the one in Rolling Stone’s now-discredited story, “A Rape on Campus.” History professor John Mason told the student paper that he can “see why some people believe that the artwork makes a joke out of what might be called sexual harassment. … I know for certain that it makes some people uncomfortable when they see it.” Then again, he told the C-VILLE Weekly this month, he likes the mural. “I’m not saying it should be painted over,” he said. “Do you offer the painter a chance to redo it? Do you make it a teaching moment?”
The idea of a “teaching moment” can provoke eye-rolls on all sides. In this case, the mural’s defenders are portraying its critics as an illiberal Inquisition determined to censor every nuance of culture and art. Lincoln Perry is “arguably the best mural painter in the country,” according to Paul Barolsky, who teaches Italian Renaissance art and literature at the university. (Perry declined to comment for this story, but he elaborated on his vision in a 2005 conversation with his wife Ann Beattie that was published in BOMB Magazine. “Murals give a reassuring sense that you can connect with people, that they will see your work over and over and perhaps get something new from it each time,” he said then.) Barolsky told the C-VILLE Weekly that tampering with the panels would set “a dangerous precedent,” asking, “If you start to cover up paintings that offend one person or another, where do you draw the line? Should I not teach Italian masters because of nude figures?”
In some cases—such as at Princeton—the activists pushing schools to reconsider where they pay homage are the first to argue that talk is cheap, or at least insufficient. At UVA, however, the faculty members I spoke to seem to think that discussion is likely the best they can hope for. Law professor Anne Coughlin told me she’s disturbed by the panels, but also by the fact that “there’s been no acknowledgement that these concerns are even legitimate.” She added in an email that she’d like to see the university “remove the panels or … supplement them in some meaningful way,” but that “At a minimum, it is time to have a dialogue about the mural.” Claire Kaplan, a program director at the UVA Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center, agreed. “[A]s someone who is highly appreciative of the arts, I am sympathetic to concerns about censorship, but don’t buy that we can’t critique art,” she wrote to me in an email. “So we will be critiquing on Wednesday at 11:30 am.”
No one I interviewed seemed to believe that the school would actually paint over the offending panels of the mural—and it’s far from obvious that it should. Still, the artistry of the images in question doesn’t make them innocuous—especially on a campus where, as of last year, not a single student had ever been expelled for sexual assault, even in cases where the perpetrator admitted to it. In this case, there may be no better option than to turn the controversy into a “teaching moment.” Maybe if the critique recurs often enough, it will amount to more than talk.