By Sandy . . . Glenn Cummings, president of the University of Southern Maine, has recently created controversy in the art world by ordering the removal of three pieces of art from the university’s campus gallery. The gallery’s curator was incensed at the removal order but had no choice but to comply. It is not the subject of the art that made it fall victim to censorship but rather the artist himself.
Bruce Habowski is, or rather was, on Maine’s sex offense registry due to a conviction of unlawful sexual contact from two decades ago. The offense with which he was charged is a Tier I offense, requiring ten years on the registry. A search for his name on the registry today turns up nothing.
His work, part of a larger exhibit titled “Industrial Maine – Our Other Landscape,” consists of three canvasses portraying paper mills, trucks, and overpasses.
Cummings had received a complaint from a relative of the victim and felt it appropriate to take action, saying that everyone had to pass by that display as it was at the main entrance, and “…the potential to trigger is very real. . . . In the end the requirement to provide a safe place for our students stands paramount.”
Who is the “everyone” needing protection from pictures of trucks and abandoned paper mills?
Think about it. I am a college student who has been sexually molested in the past. On my way through the gallery, I see this cool picture of an old yellow truck. I freeze as memories of my molestation sweep over me.
Maybe if I had been molested in a yellow truck. Or even next to a yellow truck.
Or…how about this: On my way through the gallery on campus, I see some interesting artwork. I peer closer to see the artist’s name affixed to the canvasses. Oh my gosh! I recognize that name from the time I was idly browsing through the state sex offender registry ten years ago, when I was nine! He’s a registered sex offender! Being a victim of a sexual assault some years back, I am outraged – outraged! – that MY college would display the work of a REGISTERED SEX OFFENDER.
Let’s face it. This artist’s work was removed based on the complaint of one person speaking on behalf of the person who had been the victim in Mr. Habowski’s case twenty years ago. Is she a college student today, walking past Mr. Habowski’s oil paintings of underpasses, trucks, and old paper mill silos and being “triggered” by the sight of them? Possibly yes, but more likely not.
The risk of harm being done to anyone viewing these art pieces is infinitesimal. This art was not removed based on a rational nor realistic need to protect students who had already been traumatized and were at risk of re-living their trauma due to the art. The campus is no more of a “safe space” without those three pieces than it was with them.
The art of Bruce Habowski was removed as a punitive measure by a man whose moral indignity was aroused at the thought of someone who had committed a sexual crime being given any positive recognition.
That would be an entirely appropriate judgment call for Mr. Cummings to make in choosing décor for his own home. It is an entirely inappropriate judgment call for him to make in regard to a university art gallery on a university campus over which he has total control.
Sandy, a NARSOL board member, is communications director for NARSOL, editor-in-chief of the Digest, and a writer for the Digest and the NARSOL website. Additionally, she participates in updating and managing the website and assisting with a variety of organizational tasks.