The Freedom to Offend: Art and the First Amendment

Throughout the month of April, the ReACT Gallery will exhibit works pertaining to the First Amendment. 

Melanie.Van Horn.Com

A crucifix in a jar of urine. A disfigured angel outside a university library. A political symbol sculpted entirely out of plastic infants. How far can artists wade into controversial waters before they’ve gone too far?

There is no easy answer. But that is why artists depend on the protection of the First Amendment to create their art and express ideas that may offend or cause discomfort for the viewer. For the month of April, an exhibit in the ReACT Gallery provides a snapshot of the First Amendment and its implications for students in a university setting and beyond.  

Though Nancy Gebhart, educator of visual literacy and learning for University Museums, says she hasn’t had any litigations or legal issues over the display of art, she did recall an incident from an exhibit in the fall of 2012.

The exhibit contained works by Andy Magee, who created highly sociopolitical pop art based on found objects. Within the exhibit was Magee’s “Baby Elephant,” a sculpture of a Republican-stylized elephant formed out of small plastic babies. Gebhart recalled a man who visited the exhibit and began a conversation with him about the surrounding art.

“When he saw that particular piece, he said ‘That goes way too far’, walked out, and never came back to the exhibit,” Gebhart said.

Iowa State’s campus sculptures have also been threatened with petitions for removal, with Gebhart recalling two specific petitions.

“Left-Sided Angel” by Stephen De Staebler, located outside of Parks Library, was requested to be removed shortly after its installation in 1986. Opponents claimed the sculpture was too depressing and horrifying for students to look at every day.

“Before, most of the art on campus had been the regionalist, agrarian art of Christian Petersen and Grant Wood. ‘Left-Sided Angel’ was kind of shocking in comparison to those works,” Gebhart said.

Another contested sculpture was “Border Crossing” by Luis Jiménez; the petitioner claimed the sculpture did not accurately represent the hardship and horror of those immigrating across the border. Neither petition for removal was successful.

Outside of a university setting, art can cause a much larger outrage, such as with the 1989 photograph “Piss Christ” by Andres Serrano. The work was a picture of a crucifix submerged in a jar of the artist’s own urine. Because the work was part of a federally funded art project, people claimed the art violated the separation of church and state.

“People get much more offended when it’s ‘my hard-earned tax dollars’ that pay for it, even though it’s only about a few cents a year,” Gebhart said.

However, Gebhart noted campus art typically does not offend at such a strong level because of the nature of a university setting.

“Most of the time we’re searching for strong academic applications. We’re trying to be a support system for the learning that happens on campus,” Gebhart said.

When Gebhart sought to curate the First Amendment exhibit for the ReACT Gallery, she wanted to form partnerships with preexisting groups dealing with campus issues. She had heard about First Amendment Days from an honors student a few years earlier and decided to coordinate the exhibit with the April event.

The exhibit contains works of art that pertain to all five freedoms outlined in the First Amendment, with posters from last year’s women’s march representing speech, a sculpture of John the Baptist for religion and a photo with a poem inspired by “Left-Sided Angel” to represent the freedom to petition.

In addition to student reactions to the art and the First Amendment, Gebhart also included commentary by First Amendment scholars to show the various perspectives and interpretations of the amendment.

One of Gebhart’s favorite pieces in the exhibit is “Enigma” by Brenda Jones. The painting contains three figures, each expressing various levels of freedom. One figure is a nude woman dancing oblivious to the world around her, a second figure has their face covered and a third figure is locked in a cage. Gebhart said the painting reminds viewers not everyone is granted the same freedoms.

“When we think about our defenses for the Constitution, we think in absolutes, as if it’s everyone who has these rights. And that’s simply not the case,” Gebhart said.

Gebhart is never sure how people will respond to the ReACT Gallery, and this exhibit is no different than past exhibits.

“The comments have been half and half. Some I absolutely expected, and some are not at all what I expected,” Gebhart said. “People may respond in a different way than what I intended, which is great.”

One specific comment Gebhart noted wasn’t responding to the art, but rather an interactive component of the gallery. The museum borrowed several “soap boxes” from the First Amendment Days organizers to create an interactive component, and the boxes are placed randomly throughout the gallery.

“Someone wrote ‘[The boxes] seem like they’re almost a stumbling block’ and I loved that. The idea that having the ability to say whatever you want to say is the stumbling block,” Gebhart said.  

Even the very existence of the ReACT gallery is dependent on the First Amendment. When Gebhart and University Museums conceptualized the space, they met with several legal professionals to outline potential issues and problems that could come with the space.

“The ReACT space invites people to contribute their interpretations, and in a way – anything goes,” Gebhart said.

A theoretical incident was posed to Gebhart to demonstrate the risk of opening a space that invited conversation. If, for example, a white supremacist poster or an offensive comment was found in the space and Gebhart removed it, the removal could trigger a lawsuit against the university.

“They told me, ‘That wouldn’t be a location that you could remove it’, and I said, ‘I wouldn’t’ which I think surprised them,” Gebhart said. “If you’re going to be an advocate for the First Amendment, you have to advocate for all of it.”

The ReACT Gallery exhibit on the First Amendment will remain open through April 27, and is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.