Case Study - Art

Offensive Art

Albert Piarowksi was chair of the art department at Prairie State College in Illinois. As part of the annual art department faculty exhibition, he placed three of his own works on display. The works were exhibited in the principal building of the college, in an open area on the main floor known as “the mall” that adjoins a student lounge and is the college’s main gathering space. Classrooms are on the upper floors.

Piarowski’s work consisted of eight stained-glass windows, five of which were abstract and three of which were representational. One of the latter depicted the naked rump of a brown woman, with a white cylinder resembling a finger sticking out from or into it that was meant to represent a jet of gas. In other words, it was a representation of flatulence. Another showed a brown woman from the back, standing naked except for stockings, and apparently masturbating. The third again depicted a brown woman, also naked except for stockings and also seen from the rear, crouching in a posture of veneration before a robed white male, whose most prominent feature is an oversized erect penis that the woman is embracing.

Based on many complaints from students, faculty, employees, and visitors, the chancellor ordered Piarowski to move the offending stained-glass pieces from the mall to another, less public location.

Stop. Before reading any further, what do you think?

Should Piarowski’s art be protected under academic freedom?

What Actually Happened

Piarowski brought the case to court. In Piarowski v. Illinois Community College, Judge Richard Posner (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit) walked the line between the instructor’s right to exhibit and the institution’s interest in running its affairs, protecting its reputation, and settling a potentially disruptive display of art. Posner wrote:

When we consider that the expression in this case was not political, that it was regulated rather than suppressed, that the plaintiff is not only a faculty member but an administrator, that good alternative sites may have been available to him, and that in short he is claiming a First Amendment right to exhibit sexually explicit and racially offensive art work in what amounts to the busiest corridor in a college that employs him in a responsible administrative as well as academic position, we are driven to conclude that the defendants did not infringe the plaintiff ’s First Amendment rights merely by ordering him to move the art to another room in the same building.

Posner infers that had the art been clearly political, then stronger protections may have been warranted. As long as alternative locations for exhibition were made available, then Posner allowed that the university could reasonably direct Piarowski to display the work elsewhere.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has a similar statement on “Academic Freedom and Artistic Expression,” that suggests universities may control “time, place, and manner” of exhibition of controversial art:

Artistic expression in the classroom, studio, and workshop therefore merits the same assurance of academic freedom that is accorded to other scholarly and teaching activities. Since faculty and student artistic presentations to the public are integral to their teaching, learning, and scholarship, these presentations no less merit protection. Educational and artistic criteria should be used by all who participate in the selection and presentation of artistic works. Reasonable content-neutral regulation of the “time, place, and manner” of presentations should be developed and maintained. Academic institutions are obliged to ensure that regulations and procedures do not impair freedom of expression or discourage creativity by subjecting work to tests of propriety or ideology.

Conclusion: When academic institutions offer exhibitions or performances to the public, they should ensure that the rights of the presenters and the audience are not impaired by a “heckler’s veto” from those who may be offended by the presentation. Academic institutions should ensure that those who choose to view or attend may do so without interference. Mere presentation in a public place does not create a “captive audience.” Institutions may reasonably designate specific places as generally available or unavailable for exhibitions or performances.