Opinion | The Censoring of an Iranian American Artist

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By Michelle Goldberg

Opinion Columnist

The work of the Iranian American artist Taravat Talepasand is cheeky, erotic and defiantly anticlerical. One painting in her new midcareer survey, “Taravat,” incorporates Iranian bank notes whose images of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini have been dosed with LSD. A graphite drawing, titled “Blasphemy X,” depicts a veiled woman giving the finger while lifting her robe to reveal high heels and a flash of underwear. There are sculptures of women in niqab face coverings with enormous exposed breasts. On a gallery wall, “Woman, Life, Freedom,” the slogan of Iran’s recent nationwide protests against the morality police, is written in neon in English and Persian.

When “Taravat” opened late last month at Macalester College, a left-leaning school in St. Paul, Minn., with a focus on internationalism, some Muslim students felt it made a mockery of modest Islamic dress, and thus of them. They expressed their outrage, and this month Macalester responded by temporarily closing Talepasand’s show, and then, apparently unaware of the irony, surrounding the gallery windows with black curtains.

Those curtains astonished Talepasand, an assistant professor of art practice at Portland State University. “To literally veil a ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ exhibition?” she exclaimed to me.

The uproar over “Taravat” was directly connected to a recent controversy at Hamline University, a few minutes’ drive away from Macalester, where an adjunct art history professor named Erika López Prater was fired for showing a 14th-century painting of Muhammad in an art history class. In late January, Macalester — where, as it happens, Prater now teaches — hosted a discussion between faculty and students, most of them Muslim, to address issues raised by the Hamline incident. There, some students described being upset by “Taravat.”

“I invited them to share what emotions they were holding in their bodies,” one faculty member wrote in an email, part of which was shared with Talepasand. “They named ‘undervalued, frustrated, surprised, disrespected, ignored, and it felt like hit after hit.’”

Ultimately, Macalester handled the student complaints better than Hamline did. No one was fired, and after being closed for a few days, “Taravat” reopened. But the administration’s response was still distinctly apologetic, demonstrating the anxious philistinism that can result when bureaucratic cowardice meets maximalist ideas about safety.

In a message to campus, the provost, Lisa Anderson-Levy, said that Macalester understands “that pieces in the exhibition have caused harm to members of our Muslim community.” The black curtains came down, but they were replaced with purple construction paper on the gallery’s glass entrance and frosted glass panels on its mezzanine windows, protecting passers-by from “unintentional or nonconsensual viewing,” in the words of the administration. A content warning is affixed to the door. Next to it, some students put up a yellow sign asking potential visitors to show solidarity with them by not going in.

“There’s a lot of nuance and complexity in these kinds of situations,” Anderson-Levy said in a statement when I reached out to talk. “We believe that taking time to slow down and listen carefully to the diverse perspectives across our campus community allowed us to create space for conversation and learning.”

At least some students seemed to be learning to approach contentious art cautiously. A senior sociology major who’d visited the gallery with their sculpture class when Talepasand was still assembling the exhibition told me they were thinking of returning to see what had changed. But they worried that could be an act of entitlement, and felt the need to reflect “on my place as a white person” who is “not affected by the harms as much as others.”

Some readers might object to dwelling on one instance of misguided sensitivity at one small college when the country is in the midst of a nationwide frenzy of right-wing book bans, public school speech restrictions, and wild attempts to curtail drag performances. But I think this moment, when we’re facing down a wave of censorship inspired by religious fervor, is a good time to quash the notion that people have a right to be shielded from discomfiting art. If progressive ideas can be harnessed to censor feminist work because it offends religious sensibilities, perhaps those ideas bear rethinking.

In her excellent 2021 book “On Freedom,” the poet and critic Maggie Nelson described how, in the 20th century, the avant-garde imagined its audience as numb, repressed and in need of being shocked awake. The 21st-century model, by contrast, “presumes the audience to be damaged, in need of healing, aid, and protection.”

There is value in this approach. Mary Gaitskill recently published a captivating essay about two writing classes that she taught 25 years apart. Each included a menacing male student obsessed with sadistic violence against women. In 1997, the guy was named Don, and Gaitskill was struck by how enthusiastically his female classmates seemed to respond to his imagined scenes of torture and murder. It is only toward the end of the semester, after another student’s outburst, that the young women express their fear of Don. Until then, surrounded by a culture that valorized shock and darkness, they demonstrated a “seemingly bizarre forbearance” that blunted their authentic reactions.

“But these days that breed of forbearance is looking like an indulgence that we cannot afford,” Gaitskill writes. “These days, niceness is looking pretty damn good; these days, the darkness is just too overwhelming.” In her 2022 class, she writes, almost half the class had spent time in mental institutions. Relentless demands for safety can simply be a sign of how vulnerable people feel.

Still, to automatically give in to those demands is to suffocate the arts. This becomes especially clear when you see how easily the language of trauma and harm can serve reactionary ends. Just last week, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on a school district in New Jersey that removed Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” a frequent target of conservative censorship, from the freshman honors curriculum. A parent had complained that exposure to the book’s “graphic images of sexual violence” could be “emotionally traumatizing.” This, said Talepasand, “is where the far left and the far right look very similar.”

I’m not naïve enough to believe that if the left rediscovered a passionate commitment to free speech, the right would give up its furious campaign against what it calls wokeness. But I do think that if the left is to mount a convincing response to what has become a wholesale assault on intellectual liberty and free expression, it needs to be able to defend challenging and provocative work. Art need not defer to religion. If that’s no longer obvious we’ve gone astray.

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