March 6, 2002

Art Exhibit Raises Censorship Questions

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Chair of the art department, Franklin Spector requested that Orlando Soria ’04, president of the Art Majors Organization, move his art work to a different location within the Hartel Gallery in Sibley. This decision generated disappointment and outrage among many Cornell students.

Soria’s work depicted male figures labeled with sexually explicit text such as “cumbucket,” “slut,” and “golden boy.”

After hearing about complaints by faculty who passed Soria’s work upon entering the dean’s office, Spector asked Soria to move his art to a location further away from the entranceway to the dean’s office.

Soria chose instead to cover the piece with a canvas labeled with the words “Rural America.”

He said, “This way students could actively choose to look at it.”

“I was trying to respect the sensibilities of faculty, my colleagues and visitors,” Spector said. “What I didn’t ask Orlando to do was to put a curtain over his work.”

“If [Orlando] had told me he didn’t want to move his piece, I would have supported him,” added Spector.

Nevertheless, Spector’s request for Soria to move his artwork angered Soria and many students in the art department.

Soria believes his work was misunderstood and that asking him to move his art is an act of censorship. “It was a feminist piece about challenging traditional roles,” Soria said. “The idea was to objectify men in a way that women have been objectified in the media and movies.”

He added, “There was no violence or anti-social message and no merit in censuring it. I think that the [work’s] homoeroticism was what worried people.”

“For me, being censored at Cornell felt just like being at a rural high school again. I want to make sure that Cornell and the art department especially do not become a place where conservatism and homophobia are encouraged,” Soria said.

Several other students also expressed anger at Spector’s request.

Lindsay Chandler-Alexander ’04 was the first student to write a letter to complain about Spector’s action.

Chandler-Alexander said, “I was really disappointed with the chair’s actions. I was excited about [Spector] because I was told he was going to be liberal, but at his first test, he didn’t support the students he was asked to teach.”

“There are two entrances [to the dean’s office] and those who complained could have walked in the other door and avoided Soria’s work, which makes [the situation] ridiculous,” she said. Chandler-Alexander also added that her disappointment and anger rested on, “the principle of asking artists to do anything to their work” and having an artist “hide [his or her] art.”

Rachel Mendelowitz ’03 started a letter writing campaign about both the topic of censorship in general and this issue pertaining to Spector’s request specifically. “I think that [Spector’s request for Orlando] was a form of censorship. He was telling him to move his art to a place with less visibility. This would censor his art from passersby.”

There are also some students who have chosen to remain neutral on the issue.

Dave Peth ’03, an art student, said, “I see both sides and believe both have valid arguments.”

Peth also said had he been in Soria’s position, “I personally would have moved it but I respect Orlando for covering the piece.”

Spector has received close to a dozen letters concerning last week’s occurrence. “I have read through all of the letters. A lot of good issues were raised such as the right to speech,” he said. However, Spector added, “I do think that that criticism that I censored [Orlando ‘s work] was misdirected.”

Soria agrees with Spector’s point that important issues have been raised by this experience.

“This a good experience for the art department because it is a point of departure to discuss what [the students] want,” Soria said. “I love going to school here and I have only good things to say about [Spector] and Dean Olpadwala except when it comes to their judgment in this situation.”

Dean Olpadwala of the College of Art, Architecture and Planning did not return calls for comment.

Archived article by Jamie Yonks