Princeton University has discovered an acceptable way to engage in hate speech, bigotry, and slander: Just label it “art.”
At Princeton’s Bernstein Gallery, an exhibit boasts images of naked female torsos arranged in the shape of a cross, a ripped image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and Catholic devotional items linked under the title “Shackles of the AIDS Virus.”
The sponsor? The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
This official backing of “Ricanstructions” — works in oil, mixed media, and malice by Brooklyn artist Juan Sanchez — outrages Catholic students, who consider the art blasphemous. Like most colleges, Princeton has a conduct code requiring respect for the rights and sensibilities of all members of the campus community. Behavior that demeans another’s religious beliefs — “is subject to University disciplinary sanctions.” So Catholic students are wondering: Why is art that disrespects their sensibilities and demeans their beliefs receiving, not disciplinary sanctions, but official sanction?
Looking for answers, some 60 students and faculty attended a forum organized by Wilson Dean Anne-Marie Slaughter to determine who prevails when artistic vision collides with sacred belief. As several students pointed out, the debate over “Ricanstructions” is not one of free speech, the benefits of provocative art, or the alleged sins of the Catholic Church; it’s one of fairness and equal respect. By sponsoring “Ricanstructions,” the Wilson School is singling out Catholic symbols for special abuse.
Dean Slaughter, in a moment of candor she may regret, acknowledged it was unlikely she would sponsor art that abused the symbols of other campus groups — such as Muslims. (I believe her: It’s impossible to imagine the Wilson School welcoming a collection that included, say, an Islamic crescent in a jar of urine, or Star of David surrounded by elephant dung — although prestigious museums have welcomed “art” featuring such abuse of Catholic symbols, to cheers from liberal art lovers.)
Regarding Slaughter’s blatant double-standard, Princeton student Daniel Mark, former president of the Center for Jewish Life, suggests she remove offensive “Ricanstructions” elements “or articulate principles based on which she can justify sponsoring art that is offensive to Catholics when, by her own admission, she would not sponsor some other forms of offensive art.”
When I asked Slaughter to reconcile a conduct code demanding respect for Catholics with art that makes profane use of their symbols, she replied via email that “Ricanstructions” has been “displayed without controversy in a number of highly respected museums” including Catholic St. Bonaventure University in New York.
This is the moral equivalent of defending a man who tells dirty jokes in Slaughter’s presence — even if such jokes offend her — because some women enjoy such jokes.
Slaughter regrets the exhibit “caused pain for some of our students and faculty” but justified inflicting it in the interest of displaying “works that reflect on important public-policy issues, have educational value, and stimulate thought and discussion.”
This is both Orwellian and Clintonian. Yes, Princeton’s conduct code forbids attacks on the sacred beliefs of students — but some beliefs are more sacred than others. Yes, Slaughter feels the pain of offended Catholics — but, well, they’ll just have to keep suffering through the end of “Ricanstructions”’ run.
During an interview about the “Ricanstructions” controversy, Princeton professor of politics Robert P. George invited me to imagine a work titled “Shackles of the AIDS Virus,” identical to the Sanchez work “except that pink triangles are in the place of the scapulars, and the artist is an HIV-infected ex-gay activist who has become a Catholic, renounced his former lifestyle, and blamed homosexual promiscuity and the gay movement for the spread of the disease. There is,” George declares, “exactly no chance that such a thing would be exhibited under university sponsorship” — even though it would arguably challenge far more students than one that attacks acceptable targets like the Catholic Church.
George is right. One of the canons of liberal orthodoxy is that the world is divided up between the powerful and the powerless, oppressor, and oppressed. Once assigned oppressor status, you’re not allowed to claim oppression at someone else’s hands. The Catholic Church has long been labeled an oppressor — which is why professors who would instantly notice and (rightly) condemn artistic prejudice against Muslims, Jews, gays, women, or blacks cannot see anti-Catholic bigotry even when egregious examples of it hang on the wall in front of them.
Princeton could prove its commitment to fairness by torching the conduct code and inviting artists to offend anyone they wish.
A more civilized approach is for Princeton to treat all groups with equal courtesy. Not an option, for a community claiming respect for all, is a policy that sanctions the abuse of one group’s sacred images while protecting the symbols and sensitivities of all others.
— Anne Morse is a senior writer for the Wilberforce Forum in Reston, Va.