Home News Opinion | A Left-Leaning College Didn’t Want to Offend, So It Closed Down Her Art Show

Opinion | A Left-Leaning College Didn’t Want to Offend, So It Closed Down Her Art Show


Some readers might object to dwelling on one instance of misguided sensitivity at one small college when the country is in the midst of a nationwide frenzy of right-wing book bans, public school speech restrictions, and wild attempts to curtail drag performances. But I think this moment, when we’re facing down a wave of censorship inspired by religious fervor, is a good time to quash the notion that people have a right to be shielded from discomfiting art. If progressive ideas can be harnessed to censor feminist work because it offends religious sensibilities, perhaps those ideas bear rethinking.

In her excellent 2021 book “On Freedom,” the poet and critic Maggie Nelson described how, in the 20th century, the avant-garde imagined its audience as numb, repressed and in need of being shocked awake. The 21st-century model, by contrast, “presumes the audience to be damaged, in need of healing, aid, and protection.”

There is value in this approach. Mary Gaitskill recently published a captivating essay about two writing classes that she taught 25 years apart. Each included a menacing male student obsessed with sadistic violence against women. In 1997, the guy was named Don, and Gaitskill was struck by how enthusiastically his female classmates seemed to respond to his imagined scenes of torture and murder. It is only toward the end of the semester, after another student’s outburst, that the young women express their fear of Don. Until then, surrounded by a culture that valorized shock and darkness, they demonstrated a “seemingly bizarre forbearance” that blunted their authentic reactions.

“But these days that breed of forbearance is looking like an indulgence that we cannot afford,” Gaitskill writes. “These days, niceness is looking pretty damn good; these days, the darkness is just too overwhelming.” In her 2022 class, she writes, almost half the class had spent time in mental institutions. Relentless demands for safety can simply be a sign of how vulnerable people feel.

Still, to automatically give in to those demands is to suffocate the arts. This becomes especially clear when you see how easily the language of trauma and harm can serve reactionary ends. Just last week, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on a school district in New Jersey that removed Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” a frequent target of conservative censorship, from the freshman honors curriculum. A parent had complained that exposure to the book’s “graphic images of sexual violence” could be “emotionally traumatizing.” This, said Talepasand, “is where the far left and the far right look very similar.”

I’m not naïve enough to believe that if the left rediscovered a passionate commitment to free speech, the right would give up its furious campaign against what it calls wokeness. But I do think that if the left is to mount a convincing response to what has become a wholesale assault on intellectual liberty and free expression, it needs to be able to defend challenging and provocative work. Art need not defer to religion. If that’s no longer obvious, we’ve gone astray.

You may also like