Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Questions Not To Be Asked: Brigham Young University Censorship of Student's Art Exhibit

Fascinating account yesterday on several blogs about an art project at Brigham Young University that has proven surprisingly controversial. I first read about this incident on John Aravosis’s America Blog, which links to commentary on Dan Savage’s website (www.americablog.com/2008/12/gay-bashing-mormons-censor-byu-art.html). Pictures from the project, as well as commentary about it by Michael, the BYU student who inadvertently caused the controversy simply by producing a stunning exhibit of photos, are at http://areyou1too.blogspot.com/2008/11/fine-art-portrait-project.html.*

Here’s what seems to have happened: for his final project in his Fine Arts class, Michael took photos of openly gay BYU students and of a non-gay family member or supporter of each student. He arranged the faces side by side in pairs in his gallery showing.**

There was no indication of which of the two faces was gay. This was the point of the exhibit—or one of its points: namely, as Michael notes on his blog, to emphasize that God creates each of us as we are, as equals, as equally beloved creations of God’s nurturing hands.****

It is we who add the interpretations that designate one person as acceptable and the other as not acceptable. The exhibit disrupts our tendency to classify in ways that exalt some and demean others. It forces us to admit that, without superimposed labels, we don’t actually even know who is the enemy and who the friend—who is gay and who is straight, who is abnormal and who normal, who is damned and who is saved.

This insight evidently proved too challenging and disruptive for BYU and the Mormon culture the university enshrines. A day or so ago, Michael discovered through a friend that his photos had been removed from the exhibit of final projects. To disguise the censorship, the school officials who removed the photos re-arranged the remaining projects so that no one could see that one project had been censored.

What’s fascinating to me about this story is how controversial a seemingly innocuous artistic observation can be: that we appropriate our world through interpretive devices, and some of these devices can be toxic, when they are imposed by those who need for us ally with them in hating others. In hating them merely and solely for who they happen to be. For who God made them to be.

Had a BYU art student taken Mapplethorpe-like male nude photos, or had she photographed a crucifix upside down in a bottle of urine, one could have anticipated the heavy hand of religious censorship. But all Michael did was photograph faces. And juxtapose those faces side by side. Without labels to tell us how we should read those faces. To tell us whom to love and whom to hate.

That this powerful, but entirely acceptable, final project statement would elicit censorship tells us—well, it tells me, at least—a great deal about where the churches have gone today, when it comes to loving or hating gay faces, gay human beings. The censorship here speaks volumes about the church’s obdurate and pathological need to maintain its labels at all cost—good-bad, acceptable-unacceptable, beloved-hated, saved-damned, straight-gay.

The thought of a world absent such labels appalls many religious groups. It does so because these groups cannot tolerate ambiguity. If we allow the gay and the straight, the damned and the saved, to be ambiguous, what else in our world will no longer be certain? At the heart of the resistance of the churches to gay persons—at the heart of the churches’ hate of gay human beings—is the fear that, if we rethink gender roles, everything else will be up for grabs.

Including the churches’ power over their adherents. Including how the church does business, how it proclaims a fraternal ethic while practicing a paternal one.

Anthropologists like Mary Douglas (Purity and Danger) have noted that social groups which feel themselves threatened need to draw insider-outsider lines. They also need to identify some group within their boundaries as a sly threat that has worked its way inside, and must be expelled to assure the body politic of its health and virtue.

For threatened social groups, Mary Douglas indicates, ambiguity is intolerable. It blurs the insider-outsider, the good-evil lines that the group needs (or assumes it needs) to maintain its integrity and cohesion as a social group. In Douglas’s view, this is the ultimate rationale of kosher laws regarding food: these laws rule out what cannot easily be sorted into acceptable-unacceptable categories. If an animal has a cloven hoof and ruminates, it may be eaten. But one that has one of these characteristics without the other is taboo: it defies easy classification—as do shellfish, which are fish but not fish.

As are gay people, in the minds of many churches: we are neither fish nor fowl, neither male nor female. If we are gay males, we pose a particular threat, because we call into question and subvert what many religious groups have chosen to believe is the central supporting prop of religion and culture: the dominant, superior male. Gay males are, in the eyes of paternalistic religious groups, males who deliberately and provocatively choose to cross the gender-classificatory line. We choose to become the despised “feminine.”

For this reason, it is crucial that one knows who these men are. It is crucial that the photos have labels. With labels, we do not know whom to approve and whom to reject, whom to include and whom to exclude. We do not know whom to demonize, without labels.

Michael’s work is slyly subversive, because it calls into question the central classificatory norms of Western culture, and of many religious groups within Western culture. It leads us to wonder if those norms are necessary. It leads us, in fact, to question the norms—and such questioning is intolerable at this point in our history, or so many churches judge, because the cultural pendulum is swinging too close to tolerance.

Michael’s work leads me, in turn, to question the right of those male-dominated, heterosexual-posturing groups within the power circles of many churches to own the bible. I have, frankly, had it up to here with the claims of these folks. I am tired of reading their blog postings and articles at sites such as National Catholic Reporter, where they interpret the magisterium for the rest of us, while soft-pedaling magisterial statements that bash gays. Or at Commonweal, where privileged, heterosexual males warn Obama not to incur the wrath of the Catholic church by appointing an openly gay cabinet member, or where the same privileged male voices explain that gay-inclusive readings of the scriptures are unthinkable and erroneous, because such readings subvert heterosexual male ownership of the bible.

Such readings are unacceptable to these married men who have long assumed that the bible belongs to them—as everything else does. It is their own privilege, not the scriptures themselves, that are called into question by readings of the scriptures open to the experience of human beings made gay by God.

We are at a turning point in the history of the churches, at which the ownership of the scriptures is being renegotiated. To a great extent, this turning point hinges on whether we will allow fraternal-sororal readings of the scripture that permit each person reading to have a voice in interpreting the word of God—a word spoken to all, after all—or whether we will continue to insist on a paternal reading of the scriptures that turns the scriptures over to the big man and big woman on top, and asks them to hand down to us the official word from on high.

We are a turning point in which we are having to ask whether love or hate energizes our reading of scripture and our scripture-normed practice of religion. And that question is—as Michael’s exhibit demonstrates—so controversial for religions that still wish to invest in male-privilege, paternalism, and hate that these religions will do everything possible to keep the question from being asked.

*Interestingly enough, this link appears to have stopped functioning since I composed this blog posting earlier today.

**For a clarification of what happened to Michael's blog, please see Amanda's comment below. Also please note Amanda's clarification of Michael's project.

****Examples of the photos in the exhibit are now at Michael's professional photography site, which identifies him as Michael Wiltbank. As a comment on this posting by Amanda notes, Michael Wiltbank's blog now has an explanation of why he moved his material about the exhibit from his blog to his photography website. This explanation is at the following link, which links to the photography website: http://areyou1too.blogspot.com/2008/12/because-this-blog-was.html. Out of respect for Michael's concern to protect the privacy of his subjects, I've removed a pictures of one of the duos in the exhibit. The picture heading the posting now is a picture of me and my two brothers, along with a cousin, when we were children. One of these boys would realize he was gay as he grew up. One would become a Baptist minister. One would father four children. One would die tragically young of alcoholism. The photo has no labels . . . .