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Princeton Alumni Weekly, 2 July 2003, pp. 14-15
Campus grapples with controversial presentations
Issues of sensitivity arise from art exhibition, poetry reading, and literature display

Three presentations this spring – an art exhibition, a poetry reading, and a display of historical books – have prompted campus debate about whether, and how, material that may be offensive to some should be displayed.

The concerns centered around a reading by poet Amiri Baraka, whose work has been viewed as anti-Semitic; a Woodrow Wilson School exhibition of artwork by Hunter College professor Juan Sanchez that was seen by some as disrespectful to Catholicism; and the inclusion of material considered racist in an exhibition of children’s books in Firestone Library. Professor Stanley Katz, director of Princeton’s Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, noted that the three cases are very different: While Baraka’s work was known widely to spark protests, Katz said, the disputed materials in the art and library exhibitions were part of larger educational displays, which the organizers did not expect would be controversial or offensive.

The debate illustrates some of the complexities of “identity politics – a fact of life over the last generation,” Katz said. “All we should and can do is be ever more vigilant and try to make sure we are aware and as sensitive as possible to the interests of the many groups, and I think this university does quite well with that.”

Sanchez’s 17-piece exhibit, which explored the experience of Puerto Ricans, seemed to fit into the Wilson School’s mission of displaying art that illuminates issues of public policy. Some viewers protested the use of sacred symbols in two works: Crucifix #2, which shows small images of a bare-chested woman arranged in the shape of a cross; and Shackles of the AIDS Virus, featuring a sacramental scapular — a cloth necklace with religious medals. Matthew O’Brien ’03 said, “I don’t claim a right not to be offended, but I do claim that Catholics ought to be treated fairly and with equal respect.”

To discuss the concerns, the Wilson School organized a forum attended by about 60 people, including the artist. Dean Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80 said she regretted that the exhibition “caused pain” for some students and faculty, and that the School has proposed a committee that would advise the gallery curator on selecting exhibits. “This is an exhibition that has previously been displayed without controversy in a number of highly respected museums, by an artist who has received considerable critical acclaim,” she said in a statement. At least one of the controversial works had been displayed in a similar exhibit by Sanchez at St. Bonaventure University, a Catholic university, in 1999.

Baraka appeared with another poet in the Frist Campus Center as part of a conference on slavery reparations, sponsored by the Princeton Justice Project, a student group. In advertisements in the Daily Princetonian, the Center for Jewish Life and the Princeton Committee Against Terrorism took issue with Baraka’s statements comparing Nazi leaders with U.S. leaders, and with his poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” which says: “Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed; Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to stay home that day?”

“Not only is this statement factually incorrect, but it also implies that these Israelis failed to prevent thousands of American deaths,” one ad said.

Conference organizer Robin Williams ’04 said the P.J.P. stated clearly that it did not endorse Baraka’s views and that students did challenge Baraka’s points during a question-and-answer period. Williams stressed that academic institutions like Princeton should present a wide range of viewpoints. As a result of the reading, a new group, the Princeton Committee on Prejudice, formed to encourage dialogue about race and prejudice, said Dylan Tatz ’06, a founder. The group already has organized fall discussions on the relationship between African-Americans and Jews, he said.

At the library, concerns centered on an illustration of “Little Black Sambo” in an old children’s book. The library changed the display slightly, created new information labels to provide more context, and posted a sign at the entrance to alert visitors to the material. “One of the most important missions of an academic institution is to present historical materials that, while sometimes emotionally charged and painful, have a significant educational value,” said Patricia Allen, a University spokeswoman.

Katz acknowledged that balancing sensitivity and educational value can be difficult. “But the real threat here is that these protests inevitably have a chilling effect” on expression, he said. “And that’s too bad.”

By A.D.


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