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Our Views: The power of art
Colleges ban put spotlight on controversial painting and sparked a worthwhile debate
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.

"If you want art to be like Ovaltine, then clearly some art is not for you."
— Peter Reading, English poet

It is ever the irony for those who suppress expression: The banning of something controversial often creates a greater uproar than the offending object itself.

Such may be the case with the decision by the Gainesville State College administration to remove a painting from a recent faculty art exhibit. The work by professor Stanley Bermudez is titled "Heritage?" and includes images of a Confederate flag, Ku Klux Klan members and a lynching.

The fear on the part of GSC officials was that the work's racial context might be offensive and spark a backlash. President Martha Nesbitt released a statement saying it "focused solely on the image that has been perceived as aggressively hostile in other areas of the country and other academic institutions - that being the graphic depiction of a lynching."

It was a tough call on Nesbitt's part. Ban the painting and one segment of the community protests; leave it up and others take issue. In fact, there's no way to know if the resulting furor would have been as bad or worse had the painting stayed on display.

And yet it was the wrong choice.

No doubt, the painting was meant to be provocative and it clearly would have offended some who viewed it. Welcome to the world of art.

But the idea behind art isn't always just to create pretty pictures. It often is used as a catalyst to stir human consciousness and spark a conversation about key social issues. This seems to have been Bermudez's goal. Art is meant to make us feel before we think, both important elements of a debate on hot-button topics.

And at no other place should such a discussion be more welcome than a college campus, where tomorrow's thinkers and leaders sharpen their minds for life's challenges through a free exchange of ideas.

Sadly, the trend of watering down art is nothing new. A book publisher recently edited Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" to exclude its frequent use of the n-word racial epithet. In that case, as at Gainesville State, the decision was based on fear of stirring the sensibilities of those who don't fully understand the author's intended message.

Twain himself might smirk at the irony that his tale of racial awakening, which was radical for the 19th century, would be "cleaned up" a century after his death to avoid hurting anyone's feelings.

The idea that art should never touch a nerve is contrary to its very nature. It should provoke us at times. The documentary film, protest song, novel or visual art that elicits a strong reaction makes us take a hard look at social and political issues that need to be addressed. We might not easily solve them - we certainly have not done so with the issue of race - but shying away from the subject surely will provide no answers.

Such was the case with Bermudez's painting. As a Latino, he said he felt offended when he saw the Confederate flag associated with groups that professed anti-Latino sentiments. That led him to include the image, one he feels depicts racial intolerance, in his painting.

Others strongly disagree with what that flag stands for. The head of the Heritage Preservation Association said at last week's discussion of the issue at GSC that he believes the painting perpetuates stereotypes about the old South. Members of the audience in turn questioned him over whether such values still should be revered 150 years after the Civil War.

The forum drew 250 people to the Oakwood college, while 100 more watched via remote broadcast from GSC's Oconee campus. Though the conversation was heated at times, it remained peaceful and productive. Whatever your views, consider what happened: A banned painting brought together people of different backgrounds to share their thoughts on a sensitive issue that often makes us divert our eyes.

That's the power of art.

Another facet of this story was one of censorship, whether the GSC administration had the right to remove the painting. Clearly, the president had the power to do so; anything that occurs on campus, and the reaction it might create, is her responsibility. Whether she should have done so is the question that has divided the community.

Yet it's clear her decision had the opposite effect of her intention. Because of the ban, the story appeared in several national newspapers. As a result, it's likely that many more people now have seen it than would have if it had remain hanging in the Roy C. Moore Art Gallery.

We all know the strong emotional response the Confederate emblem invokes on all sides; the painting is just another testament. We went through this in the last decade when Georgia leaders decided to change the state flag and remove that image. It is, in every case, radioactive.

For many, those feelings are hidden below the surface. Bringing it out of the shadows is the first step toward understanding.

That's what art does. Makes us think. Makes us talk. Makes us interact over issues we might not otherwise want to discuss. Which is why it should be encouraged, hung proudly for all to see rather than shoved in a closet for convenience sake.

Hiding the image doesn't hide the issues it addresses. It just removes them from view for awhile.

"These are the kind of things that people will need to process and reflect upon and hopefully have good conversations with their friends, their classmates and in the classroom," Tonna Harris-Bosselmann, adviser for the campus' Students for a Progressive Society, said at the forum last week. "Hopefully it was a learning experience for everyone."

A learning experience. Sounds like what a college is built to provide. So, ban or no, mission accomplished.