Academic Freedom in the Arts

January 13, 2012

Daniel Grant has an essay in today’s Inside Higher Ed entitled “Free Speech and (Offensive) Art.”  Grant’s brief bio describes him as someone who writes about career and business issues in the arts, and occasionally teaches at an art college.

His essay is full of interesting examples of issues that can arise in arts courses around student projects, especially when those student projects are put up for display.  Grant notes that “a culture of epater la bourgeoisie– shock the middle-class, afflict the comfortable – has existed for 150 or so years” in the arts, and students are endlessly joining that culture.

What Grant’s essay doesn’t do, for me at least, is provide any useful guidance about what to do in these situations.  He urges that arts faculty think more about these issues before they make assignments, and he urges faculty to talk with students about their these issues, But he doesn’t (so far as I can see) provide any guidelines that students can learn or that faculty can teach.

He frames the issue as one of “free speech.”  I wish he had framed it instead around “academic freedom,” because that’s the professional value on college and university campuses.  I’ve said this before: free speech has to do with not being subject to restrictions from governments, and involves no responsibility.  Academic freedom has to do with what we allow of one another (students, faculty, visitors) in academic settings AND the responsibilities that are attendant upon everyone in allowing all a great deal of intellectual and creative freedom.

With regard to scholarship, the most important responsibility is to always be seeking to tell the truth.  Truth-telling is the north star.  But it’s harder to know how we should take our bearings in the arts.

One line that Grant flirts with, but needs stronger emphasis, I think, has to do with the distinction between creating art and presenting art.  We should give students (and faculty) a good deal of maneuvering room in creating art.  Academic freedom should have considerable play in that regard.  But judgments other than academic freedom might come into play in deciding which works are displayed or presented in settings that go beyond the (protected) space of the classroom.  We should not assure students that anything they create will be hung in a gallery or shown on a screen or a gallery wall open to the wider public.

That’s not “censorship.”  Students have a right to create, so long as they are conscientiously trying to create art.  (Yes, that’s a very slippery concept.)  And they have a right to be evaluated and critiqued by their faculty.  But they don’t have a right to present their work to the public under the auspices of college or university sponsorship.  As artists, they should bear that responsibility (and all that comes with it) on their own.  Academic institutions may choose to present student art work in galleries or theaters, but the judgments they may about what to present should and will involve considerations that go beyond academic freedom.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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