Censorship, or Safety? by Dan Kany

Statements, dialogue and conversations about censorship and USM president Glenn Cummings’ unilateral decision to remove three paintings from the Atrium Gallery’s exhibition “Industrial Maine: Our Other Landscape”

By Daniel Kany

“I would prefer we act in this case from our hearts and not our anger.”
Robert Shetterly

Curated by Janice Moore, “Industrial Maine: Our Other Landscape” ran from March 13 to June 1, 2018, at the Atrium Art Gallery of the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College at 51 Westminster St., Lewiston, Maine.

Soon after the opening, USM president Glenn Cummings removed three paintings of factories by a Waterville artist who has shown in the past at leading galleries and notable venues such as the Center for Maine Contemporary Art and the Portland Museum of Art.

According to Cummings’ office (in my first conversation with them before my review came out; but we’ll come back to this), Cummings removed the works based on a complaint by a relative of a victim of a sex crime involving unlawful sexual contact in 1999, for which the artist served six months in prison. The artist also had two sex-related misdemeanor convictions in the 1990s, one involving a juvenile. (Since I drafted this text, Cummings called me and clarified his thinking and details about the incident; this dialogue changed my thinking to a large extent, but, in the spirit of dialogue, I am choosing to leave my first draft in place and comment on it below.)

Below are excerpts from email conversations between John Ripton, a UMVA member and a participating artist in “Industrial Maine,” and UMVA president Robert Shetterly. Included as well are snippets from my own emails to them regarding the removal of the three paintings.

Cummings did not contact the curator, Janice Moore, before taking action. Instead, he had a university employee take down the works. The university then contacted the artist and had him remove the works.

This is an instance of censorship. But was it the right thing to do? The open questions include whether Cummings was justified in removing the work, whether Cummings was acting appropriately in his capacity as university president, and whether Cummings handled the process well. I think the answers are no, no and no. However, this is a nuanced issue: Cummings is clearly tasked with the safety of his student body and there is no question that he acted with the safety and well-being of the USM community in mind. Many think Cummings acted within his legitimate authority, while others don’t. Regardless, with the current public focus on “triggers” and the #MeToo movement, it is easy to follow Cummings’ logic, and there is no doubting his intentions to do what he felt was right. Moreover, the Atrium Gallery is an actual atrium, the main entrance to USM’s L/A building, so, logically, any student entering the building would necessarily be in the visual presence of all of the works in the exhibition.

If the concern was the name of the artist — an indirect presence — then Cummings’ acting in such a patently controversial way flew in the face of his purported goal. It was virtually inevitable that the artist’s name would be picked up by news organizations, and so it was (it was first published by the Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram for which I write). While no statement from the university or the curator included the artist’s name, it was simple enough to discern from comparing the exhibition’s public media materials and noting which artist was no longer included in the show. Moreover, Moore left the spaces previously occupied by the paintings blank and included a note that stated that Cummings had removed the paintings. (The university later took these notes down, and that is another as-yet largely unvisited chapter of this story.)

I personally think Cummings was well-intentioned but handled the situation poorly: He might have, for example, contacted the curator first and sought her insights.She might have chosen, for example, to remove the work on her own. (Moore’s later statements make it clear she likely would not have done so, but Cummings had no way of knowing that — and didn’t bother to find out.) Or he might have contacted the artist and asked him not to come to any USM campus during the run of the show, etc.

My purpose in presenting the snippets of the dialogue between Ripton, Shetterly and others (including me) that follow is not to find or declare a singular truth but to encourage readers to delve into these complex and nuanced issues.

No one can undo what happened, but this seems a worthy set of circumstances to consider so that administrators and curators (and the public) can handle this as well as possible in the future. And if we are to accept censorship based on past actions, where do we draw the line? What if an artist was abusive to a spouse, robbed someone, cheated on taxes, got in a bar fight, or embezzled from an organization? As a critic, I have spent years developing my abilities to mentally separate works of art from the artists who made them. In other words, as a critic, I write about art, not artists. The painting and the person, as I see it, are not the same thing. But, of course, I do not expect the public to have the same perspective as I do. Culture is about people after all. It is a dynamic social space in which we articulate, confirm and test our ever-changing values. Right and wrong are never the same for long.

I want to be clear that I am deeply sympathetic to the victim, her family, Cummings, Moore, and the artist. Their perspectives are all different and I see no reason to believe that any of them have acted with ill-intent regarding this issue. I see merit in the statements of both Ripton and Shetterly. That is why I have included them both.

The first draft of this piece ended with the previous sentence, but I am here adding comments President Cummings made to me on the phone on the evening of June 28 and some of my thoughts about them.

Cummings explained to me that he found out about the presence of the work when the victim’s family contacted him and told him they were planning a public protest. This changes things and renders moot several of the points I made above: To begin, the idea that the victim was seeking quiet privacy was simply not true; that also means my surmising that Cummings was trying to keep this on the QT was wrong. Regarding the protest, this clarifies that Cummings wasn’t worried about the triggering of a single individual but any and all members of the community who may have been sexually assaulted in the past. “And it’s my understanding,” stated Cummings, “that as many as 20 or even 25% of American women are sexually assaulted at some point in their lives.” Suddenly, I came to see the urgency of Cummings’ actions in a very different light. Whereas I had seen his abrupt unilateralism as insufficiently considered, I came to appreciate the difficulty of Cummings’ position and now consider his tactics as sympathetically strategic.

I am not sure how much of my previous statements I would have made differently if I had spoken to Cummings prior to drafting the text. However, I am not sure I would have spoken to Cummings if I hadn’t sent him my draft. In the spirit of dialogue, I am leaving my statements, my mistakes and my original thinking. After all, this is the point of dialogue: Our perspectives change and grow as we learn more about a situation. My thinking certainly has. I still think this is an instance of censorship and I do not think it was handled well. But I am now far more sympathetic about why this unraveled the way it did.

Here are a few related links:

Curator Janice Moore’s statement about the “Industrial Maine” censorship issue:
http://maineartsjournal.com/industrial-landscapes-a-curators-experience/

Daniel Kany’s 6 May Maine Sunday Telegram review of “Industrial Landscapes”: https://www.pressherald.com/2018/05/06/art-review-grit-galore-art-of-maines-industrial-landscape/

Bob Keyes’ May 6 article about the removal of the work:
https://www.pressherald.com/2018/05/06/sex-offenders-artwork-pulled-from-usm-show-at-lewiston-auburn-gallery/

Bob Keyes’ May 7 article about Cummings’ public response:
https://www.pressherald.com/2018/05/07/usm-president-responds-to-criticism-about-removal-of-sex-offenders-artwork/

Following are just a few excerpts from the email dialogue:

Excerpt from John Ripton’s May 3 “Open Letter to USM President Glenn Cummings, EdD” signed by Ripton and 19 others:

“As artists participating in the “Industrial Maine: Our Other Landscape” exhibit currently showing in the Atrium Art Gallery at USM Lewiston-Auburn, we respectfully call on you to restore to the gallery wall three paintings that you removed more than two weeks ago. We are joined in this urgent appeal by fellow artists at the Union of Maine Visual Artists. Your action constitutes censorship in clear violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Even if the three art pieces contain offensive content, which they do not, your decision to remove them threatens the very foundation of democratic society based on free expression of ideas.

Censorship must be vigorously opposed by citizens who wish to live in a free and open society. Any repressive step – no matter how insignificant it may appear or how justified it may seem – must be forcefully resisted. While censorship of creative expression may not appear to be significant in this instance, you have decided that a fellow citizen may not exhibit his work in a public institution. That is a decision that no one in a democracy can afford to accept.

(…)

In Section 212 of the University of Maine Policy Manual “The Board of Trustees of the University of Maine System affirms its commitment to the rights of free speech, free inquiry, and academic freedom. To protect these rights, all members of the University community should act toward each other with civility, mutual respect, integrity, and reason.”

The University further recognizes that freedom of expression “requires tolerance for diversity of opinion…without social or legal prohibition or fear of sanction.”

Daniel Kany seeking permission to get statements from Ripton and Shetterly. (It was Shetterly who suggested using the dialogue rather than statements.) June 14, 2018

“John & Robert,

Can we get and have permission to run your statements about the USM censorship issue for the forthcoming issue of the Maine Arts Journal: The UMVA Quarterly?

I am writing a piece with my name on it to accompany them. (I am on the MAJ’s editorial board, but this is a self-authored article, not an editorial board statement.)

My take is that there was a legitimate concern on the part of the president but that censorship of art is something that should be taken very seriously and only considered as a last resort. I don’t approve of Cummings’ process and lack of transparency. I think his job’s mission statement is clear that it was wrong for him to have pulled the work: He is tasked with supporting and defending academic freedom, and that includes curatorial presentation in the Atrium Gallery.

I also think that someone who has done criminal wrong in the past — and who has admitted and apologized for that wrongdoing and who has been cleared from the ranks of sex offenders — should not be penalized for doing something positive like art, particularly since this art is in no way concerning or offensive.

These points will constitute the bulk of my statement.

I hope we can count on including your comments in the MAJ.

Thank you,

Dan Kany”

Robert Shetterly to John Ripton May 3, 2018

Dear John,

As I said before, I’m opposed to the sending of this letter as it is written. (Shetterly is referring to the open letter quoted above that Ripton authored as an artist included in the exhibition.)

I think the issue is more nuanced than blatant censorship .

However, that’s simply my opinion.

I’ll be interested to see what comes of the sending of the letter.

I’ve copied below my response from last week. I should add that no one, except William (Hessian, the president of the UMVA’s Portland chapter), made any attempt to discuss this with me.

Best,

Rob”

From Rob Shetterly to William Hessian April 28, 2018:

“Thanks for sending the letter, William.

I’m totally opposed to it as written.

Although there is a censorship issue here, there is also a very real person who was a victim of sexual assault to whom the exhibit is disturbing.

There is no mention of her in the letter or empathy for her concerns.

It’s true that the artist may have served his time and certainly should be allowed to make and show his work,

It’s also true that the sentence is never over for the victim. Any reminder of him triggers fear and pain.

Before any letter is sent I recommend reaching out to the victim or the relatives & inviting them to have their say about  how they feel. Sit in a circle and listen. If art and artists should be about anything, it’s about listening.

I’m not in favor of having our “rights” of free speech run roughshod over a vulnerable person.

To me this is not the kind of free speech issue where ‘truth’ is being muzzled or kept secret. It’s primarily  an issue of sensitivity. How can we as artists at this moment actually help the victim have a voice and perhaps, then, find a way to show the paintings — she might OK that if she feels heard.

I spent a long time this morning talking with Jon Wilson of Just Alternatives (www.justalternatives.org <http://www.justalternatives.org/> ) who is a national expert on creating dialogue between victims and perpetrators.  He said it is very rare in our society for the voice of the victim to be heard or even considered over the “rights” of the perpetrator. We are encouraged to honor that the offender gets to “move on.” That’s fine, but the victim doesn’t get to move on from her trauma. I would prefer that the UMVA find a way to honor that.

That being said, I think the political sentiments of the letter in how they describe art and free speech in our culture today are exactly correct. But I don’t think they fit this problem and shouldn’t. I would prefer we act in this case from our hearts and not our anger.

Let’s discuss further….

Best,

Rob”

John Ripton to Robert Shetterly, Fri, May 4, 2018

“Hi Robert,

I appreciate your concerns and agree with many of your remarks. Endorsers of the letter are, of course, sensitive to any victim of a sex crime. Some of us have known such horrific experiences and many have relatives and friends who suffer daily the wrenching emotional consequences of such crimes. These experiences and the tragic plight of the victim and the relative who apparently contacted president Glenn Cummings were part of our discussion in the UMVA Portland Chapter. In this case, unfortunately, curator Janice Moore’s appeal to Glenn Cummings did not lead to any meeting to discuss the matter and reach an appropriate decision.

Several weeks have passed since the removal of the paintings. Janice Moore put a notice in the space of the missing paintings indicating that they had been removed by order of USM President Glenn Cummings. As curator, she felt that this was appropriate, given that an empty space suddenly appeared where the work of an artist who was part of the show and listed as a participating artist in the exhibit’s publicity had hung. His work had been seen by many who had attended the opening or had visited the show shortly afterward.

As far as I know from my conversations with Janice, Glenn Cummings has not reached out to have a meeting in which these delicate and sensitive matters might be more fully addressed. I believe that Janice earlier conveyed to you that she had requested an opportunity to discuss these matters with President Cummings when he called her to congratulate her on the exhibit. In addition, the notice on the wall where the paintings once hung clearly illustrates that this delicate matter has not been adequately considered.

The politics of the day are highly charged and frequently polarized. I and, as far as I can determine from our conversations at the gallery in Portland, other UMVA members are intimately aware of this. I don’t doubt that Glenn Cummings’ decision to remove the paintings was rational and informed by an understandable sensitivity to the victim. At the same time, neither curator nor the artist knows anything more about the reasons for his decision and he had ample opportunity to bring all parties into discussions concerning those reasons. No one asked that the victim be identified or even attend such a meeting. A more sensitive understanding could have been reached in a number of other ways.

Under these circumstances, Dr. Cummings’ decision seems at best quite arbitrary. In the broader American society we contend daily with lack of transparency, misguided communication, muddy decision-making and disregard for evidentiary fact. The laws protecting a democratic society are only as good as our political will to maintain them. If we allow, for example, the Justice Department to be undermined by those who do not wish to countenance potentially damaging information to surface, then we will have abdicated our responsibility and placed into jeopardy all expression of ideas except those that have gained the political advantage to use the law for their own purposes.

These are the very reasons the First Amendment provision of “free speech” exists. And the Supreme Court has interpreted creative expression to fall within that provision’s scope. While acting on principle may sometimes seem to observers as insensitive to others, it is often forgotten that the principle in this case is ultimately protecting the rights of all people to be heard. Without carefully observing this right, the victims of any criminal act, heinous ones and less reprehensible ones, will not be adequately heard.

It is in this spirit that Janice Moore requested of Dr. Cummings an opportunity to discuss more fully the removal of the paintings. She knew well that the decision needed to involve all affected parties. She was completely sensitive to the complaint that had been made on the victim’s behalf. Janice and I are both aware that the complexities of this delicate issue are interconnected and anything short of addressing those wide-ranging relationships may actually do more harm to victims of sex crimes than might be appreciated in the absence of deeper consideration.

For these reasons it is critical that we express clearly and affirmatively to president Glenn Cummings our shared concerns about censorship in light of the First Amendment and the USM charter’s (section 212 Free Speech, Academic Freedom, and Civility).

I respect your thoughtful remarks. Unfortunately, I was not aware of your response to the letter. I write at such length to make clear how important this request to restore the paintings actually is. It is a difficult issue and one that should have been addressed appropriately before an act of censorship occurred.

Respectfully,

John”

National Coalition Against Censorship’s Director of Programs, Svetlana Mintcheva’s June 21 “Statement about USM Censorship”

The University of Southern Maine’s (USM) removal of three paintings from an exhibition in an on-campus gallery is a disturbing instance of encroachment on academic and curatorial freedom. The incident highlights the need for exhibition spaces at academic institutions to have clear guidelines in place. As institutions whose mission it is to nurture cultural exchange and education, public universities must uphold and protect freedom of expression in their exhibition spaces as staunchly as in their classrooms.

USM’s removal of paintings by Bruce Habowski, a well-regarded painter whose works have been shown at the Portland Museum of Art and the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, from “Industrial Maine: Our Other Landscape,” was based on complaints that his past behavior disqualifies his work from being displayed no matter what it represents. USM President Cummings’s subsequent statement that the work, beautifully executed paintings of industrial landscapes, could serve as a trigger for victims of child abuse and sexual assault raised further alarm about the University’s commitment to principles of academic freedom:

If universities were to purge all material produced by those who have ever violated moral and social imperatives, there would not be much left to study and students would be deprived of all nuanced discussion about ethical and moral conflict. (Caravaggio was a murderer; Picasso a serial sex abuser; Dostoevsky a virulent anti-Semite, the list is very very long.) A sterile, empty space may be “safe” but it does not promote learning or any form of complex thinking.

Students attend college to learn, to discuss ideas and be exposed to a wide range of art and literature, not to be kept in an isolation bubble. They must be trusted and respected for their strength, not treated as fragile victims. Rather than suppress the creative output of those who fall short in their moral conduct, a university must find intelligent ways to encourage its community to engage in critical discussions of such issues in all their nuances and grey areas.

Here are four principles that academic exhibition spaces should adopt:

  • Artistic expression in a university setting, as well as the presentation of student and faculty work to the public, is integral to the learning process and therefore merits the protection accorded to other scholarly and teaching activities. University exhibition spaces must align with the mission of educational institutions, uphold curatorial and academic freedom, and demonstrate respect for the curator’s decisions.
  • Universities hold exhibitions to encourage artistic creativity, expression, learning and appreciation, and they do not thereby endorse specific artistic presentations nor do the presentations necessarily represent the institution. This principle of institutional neutrality does not relieve institutions of general responsibility for maintaining professional and educational standards, but it does mean that institutions are not responsible for the views or attitudes expressed in specific artistic works.
  • While many considerations enter the curatorial process, once an exhibition goes up, academic institutions should ensure that the rights of the presenters and the audience are not impaired by a “heckler’s veto” from those who may be offended by the presentation. Those who choose to view or attend should be able do so without interference. Modifications should only be made in exceptional cases and only after an extensive process of deliberation with all the stakeholders.
  • The selection of art for an exhibition should not require a background check into the artists’ pasts, nor should artists be judged and disqualified from participation in an exhibition based on their beliefs, statements or past behavior unrelated to the work shown. Such a requirement not only unduly burdens the curatorial process, it would open the institution to a flood of complaints for giving a platform to individuals that may hold the “wrong” ideas or have been accused of various types of misconduct.

 

Art Origins: My life as a half-blind art critic

By Daniel Kany

When I was four years old, I wound up with a steak knife in my eye. I had more than 20 stitches on my cornea and I spent two weeks in the hospital, during much of which, I had patches covering both of my eyes. The damage was severe. To keep my optic nerve from atrophying, the doctors tried contact lenses, which, in the early 1970s, were hard plastic and not much fun for a wriggly little boy.

I feel very lucky that my left eye tracks reasonably well with the right one. But for all intents and purposes, I only see out of my right eye. My left eye works, but in such a blurry and useless way that my midbrain disregards it. I cannot see stereoscopically.

My brother and sister are older than me and they are superior athletes. My sister is a world champion rugger and both were the stars of essentially every sports team they were ever on. That would not be my path. The vision issue was only part of it: I lacked their natural ability. I play soccer and excel at ping pong, but, as a youth, I quickly got tired of letting down coaches excited about “another Kany!”

Monocular vision is a handicap, but it does offer a few benefits. Television, movies, and photography, for example, are made with a single lens and one of painting’s great triumphs was the invention of single point perspective. I can’t say that these things are more satisfying to me than to two-eyed folks, but since they match my typical experience of the world, I suspect they are. Paintings work hard to convince viewers of depth by means of modeling, atmospheric perspective, etc; and so, from time to time, paintings appear to me with more depth than the real world, at least, from a stationary perspective.

Rather than trying to keep up with my siblings in the athletic arena, I took up music. I began playing bass in rock bands when I was in eighth grade. That was in Waterville, home of Colby College and its vaunted art museum. One day when I walked into Bixler — Colby’s music and art building — I looked up a staircase and saw a painting by Abbott Meader on the wall on the landing. I was in high school, but that painting appeared to me as a vision and it was immediately etched into my mind. It is not an easy painting to describe. It is an abstract landscape, highly controlled and focused. Across the top is a horizontal band that looks like a view of a road through Southwest farm landscape (green field on the left and fallow straw on the right) seen through ski goggles from a motorcycle. Shooting forward to that visual horizon is a series of colored lines that gathers thickly at the bottom of the image and converges towards the top. Pink horizontal bands flow into the scene from the right to reinforce the idea of landscape, but on the left side they billow like drapery or even a ghostly figure. That painting struck me immediately as both visually and spiritually transcendent. That was 1982.

Abbott Meader, Nike / Western Sundown, acrylic on canvas, 1972, photo by the artist.

(N.B. I sent this above description of the painting to the artist and it was enough for him to recognize the painting and send me the image included with this text.)

I hadn’t found painting. It had found me. I began to make art somewhat seriously, but I was more interested in seeing and learning about art. At Bowdoin College I studied art history — but not painting. (I now cringe at my rationale: When asked by a friend why I didn’t take painting classes at Bowdoin, I replied: “I don’t need anyone to teach me how to express myself.” Ouch.)  I went to Paris and studied art history at the Sorbonne. While in Europe, I wandered into the Rothko room in the Tate Gallery and had what is probably most commonly called a mystical experience with one of Rothko’s, Red on Maroon (1959).

Mark Rothko, Red on Maroon, 1959, image courtesy WikiCommons.

The thing about this kind of experience is its fundamental undeniability. It happened. And it was powerful. And indeed, the easiest way to understand or talk about such experiences is in the traditional terms of mysticism. I can see how when someone would mention this kind of experience to others, they would then easily accept it as proof of “God”. This type of experience is profound and personal, however vague, so it makes sense that people would generally see it as reinforcement of their own cosmology.

Not surprisingly, I have long been drawn to artists who produce such work and who are not caught up in specific religious dogma. My favorite artists have long included Kasimir Malevich, Rothko, Matisse, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt as well as landscape painters with a propensity for bold colors, such as the Fauves (particularly Braque and Derain), Kandinsky, van Gogh, Cézanne, and the German Expressionists. On one hand, I would like to believe my taste has become more refined after 35 years of looking. Maybe it has, but considering my favorite works in the light of my first transcendent art experience — that semi-psychedelic Meader landscape at Colby — I am not so sure it has.

What has been consistent for me is the transportive experience of art. (Transcendence and being transported aren’t the same thing, but they have much in common.) I think we can see this in the movement from artists like Kandinsky and Mondrian from landscape into abstraction. I like to explain the invention of abstraction as the realization by artists that when it comes to legibility, instead of having the viewer need to recognize a legible subject of the painting (that thing, that person, that place, etc), it is enough that the painting be recognized  (i.e., legible) as a painting. That is similar to the move from transportive to transcendent.

What I struggle with is akin to the idea that stereoscopic vision sees a physical world while monocular vision sees a visual world. I can’t remember what it was like to see stereoscopically and my closest art friend during all this time — a fellow Colby brat and career art professional — also had eye issues and so could not see stereoscopically. However bizarre and unlikely that may be and however much that might have tainted our ability to understand the vision of others, I don’t think it was by chance that we both have remained steadfastly dedicated to professions in the arts as well as huge fans of painting and visual art in general.

I do not like the scene from Un Chien Andalou, the 1929 silent surrealist short film by Spanish director Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí. (Spoiler Alert: That straight razor slashes open her eye. Ouch.)

Spanish director Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí were absolutely sick, and yet I love this movie…

There is a cliché of a movie director making a square with their thumbs and forefingers and squinting to look through it with one eye. We all understand that: They’re trying to see a scene as ifit were being filmed. What they are doing, however, is orienting themselves to see the scene monocularly. I believe painters do this all the time: They stand directly in front of their work and view it from a fixed point. (And unlike hearing, seeing is based on the dominant eye and backed up by the other.)  So, yeah, y’all two-eyed folks can do it, and you often do it on purpose. But some of us—fortunately few (hardly the fortunate few) — can only see the world that way.

Let me be clear: Taking a knife to the eye was a nightmare. (I can still remember the feeling from 48 years ago and it was hellish.) But it does make me wonder if I would have found this enriching life in the arts if I hadn’t mangled myself. I am not glad it happened. But I can say I would much rather be a half-blind art critic than a mediocre athlete.

Our Saudi Moment by Daniel Kany

The first group of “cultural Influencers” invited to Saudi Arabia by the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture and Culturunners pictured here in the Jeddah home of architect Sami Angawi. (All photos are Daniel Kany’s shots from the trip unless otherwise notes.)

I was invited to join a group of 20 “cultural influencers” on a week-long art tour through the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in February. The trip was organized and paid for by the new Aramco-funded King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, the centerpiece of which is a giant new compound designed by the Norwegian architectural firm Snøhetta. The goal of the trip was to build cultural bridges between KSA and the Western world.

Members of the “cultural influencers” group at the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in February 2017. The Center is slated to open around September 2017.
Work from Phantom Punch: Nouf Alhimiary, Untitled, from The Desire Not to Exist series, 2015, photograph, courtesy of the artist and Culturunners.

I imagine I was invited because I was the first art critic to review Phantom Punch, the first comprehensively curated exhibition of Saudi contemporary art to open in the United States. Phantom Punch ran at the Bates College Museum of Art from October 28, 2016 to March 18, 2017 and was curated by Loring Danforth, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Anthropology, and Dan Mills, the Director of the Bates College Museum of Art. (Click here to see my Nov 7, 2016 review in the Maine Sunday Telegram: Contemporary Saudi works highlight a fast-evolving art scene.

This is a contemporary commercial gallery in Jeddah; on the right is New York-based art writer Kat Herriman.

The vast new cultural complex is scheduled to open in late 2017. Snøhetta has delivered  an architectural masterpiece, even if it was seemingly plopped with the mirage logic of an imagined oasis in the middle of a thirsty desert. But the center is much more than a building. It is an institution dedicated to education through indigenous and international perspectives including design, culture, creative economy subjects, entrepreneurialism and information technologies.

My group, the first such group to be invited by the Center, comprised mostly Americans, but among the curators and museum professionals from the Warhol Foundation, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, etc, were artists and arts professionals from France, Norway, England and elsewhere.

The author with artist Lina Gazzaz in her Jeddah studio.

As an art critic, I am by nature skeptical of any culture narrative presented to me. The Center’s story, after all, seemed a typical marketing pitch: A new art facility goes up and a press event is held with the standard PR goal of free ink. There was certainly a PR component to this, but it is genuinely newsworthy. This isn’t just another facility among others like it, the Center and the inviting of “cultural influencers” are aspects of an extraordinary cultural shift in Saudi Arabia. As Americans, we have historical reasons as well as current political reasons to be skeptical, but we need to take this shift very seriously. What we have before us is a hand extended at a critical moment for our society as well as theirs. With headlines

Artist Khalid Ahmed Oraij in front of his work Secret Meeting with artist and Pharan curator Arwa Al Neami.

about proxy wars in Yemen and Syria, financial concerns related to the collapse of oil prices, human rights abuses, it’s easy to miss the cultural potential of a more open relationship between the US and KSA. It may be on the cultural and societal levels where the most significant changes are taking place and so it would be a mistake for Americans and Saudis to pass up the opportunity for cultural dialogue. In the spirit of transparency, equality and freedom, I believe that opening the cultural gate between our two countries is the right thing to do.

Sarah Taibah’s The Yous in Youself at Pharan. Taibah’s work was also included in Phantom Punch.

In 2015, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud ascended to the throne. During the following year, the deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman laid out the National Transformation Plan (NTP) or, as it is more commonly known, Vision 2030, a progressive strategic plan comprising hundreds of governmental goals and policies, the most notable of which is the forthcoming initial public offering of shares of the state oil giant Saudi Aramco. The effect of an Aramco public offering is hard to gauge, not only because it is likely to be the largest IPO in history (estimates point to $2 trillion) but because of the necessary transparency. I think the media generally overemphasizes the economic issues brought on by the collapse of global gas prices because there is much data here that can be subjected to analysis. Far more abstract, and therefore difficult to gauge or discuss, are the societal and cultural aspects of a nation without a history of economic transparency, opening the books to a company that provides the vast majority of Saudi GDP. Aramco is most likely to be offered in London or New York, and I hope — for cultural reasons rather than economic — that KSA decides on New York.

Detail of Qamar Abdoulmalik, Passport of Your Dreams, at Pharan Studio.

What does this have to do with art? Everything. Culture is how we experience our society. Art in the West has been a powerful tool of social insight and critique — and the Saudis are now looking to American culture. They are the world’s largest per capita consumer of social media — they use Twitter and YouTube, for example, more than Americans do. And this is not hypothetical to me: Saudis I met became my Facebook “friends” and the public conversations among them and my Maine art “friends” began the first day I was in the kingdom. It ought to be noted that the government does filter and monitor internet use, which we can assume promotes self-censorship. Advocacy groups have ranked KSA, along with Iran and China, as among the ten most censored countries, but with KSA’s new openness policies, this too can be a place for positive change. When I looked at my own Facebook page from KSA on someone else’s account, I could read everything —  and that matters.

A view of the exhibition FN in Jeddah. (The title FN is a witty play on the Arabic word for painting and the English word “Fun.”)

The visit coincided with exhibitions featuring the “21,39” artists (the latitude/longitude-based name for a Saudi contemporary art movement) so we saw many exhibitions, some officially-funded and some not. What struck me about the art I saw in Jeddah was how the topics matched the political poignancy of American art. While art of social commentary can get a little tiring when it simply references “important” issues rather than offering perspective, this work certainly shattered my expectations. Of course, it also makes sense that this is the focus of these artists: We expect the content of new contemporary art to address issues legible and important to the public audience, and they don’t have a history of indigenous contemporary art to mine for the art-about-art aesthetic that has long been a part of  European and American art culture.

Qamar Abdoulmalik, Passport of Your Dreams, at Pharan Studio.

For example, there was Qamar Abdoulmalik’s claw video game in which, for 2 Riyals (about 50 cents), you could win — through skill and luck — the “passport of your dreams.” The prizes were recreated passports of countries throughout the world labeled “Documents for Refugees.” There was a great deal of work, much of it very strong, that addressed, either directly or indirectly, the status of women in Saudi society. I was particularly impressed, however, by Dana Awartani’s combination of a floor sand-painted in tile-like geometrical details and the accompanying video of a woman sweeping a similarly-sanded floor. What surprised me was the prevalence of figurative art as well as the primacy of critique in their contemporary art idiom. This is not to say there isn’t strong work primarily dedicated to aesthetic or formal concerns, there is. Ahmed Angawi, for example, brings design, craft and conceptual concerns to his work. He uses Hejaz design logic and the modularity of beehives as his starting point for his hanging fine-craft flavored sculptures.

Ahmed Angawi in his Jeddah studio. Utah-based artist John Bell is on the left.

That “21,39” exhibition was corporately funded, but much of the strongest work I saw was in independent settings. In Pharan, Ahmed Mater and Arwa Al Neami’s studio, for example, I saw an excellent video work by Mohammed Alfaraj that included scenes of girls from very conservative families skipping school to go listen — and dance — to music at an oceanside public spot. Sarah Taibah’s work, for example, took on questions of schizophrenia in conjunction with the associated (let’s say, myth-conception) of multiple personality disorder: My takeaway was the idea that forcing disparate versions of public life and private life on individuals uses mental health to comment on social health.

The shifting status of women in Saudi society, to my surprise, is a topic from which no one I met shied away, including an Aramco executive, Nasser Nafisee, who hosted a conversation with our group and who then met with me personally for about an hour.  Nafisee noted that “change is inevitable” and discussed the idea that Saudi

Still from Mohammed AlFaraj, Glimpses of Now, at Pharan.

societal change will come in the form of “creating an information society.” He directly connects the landscape of cultural change to economic progress: Nafisee talks about “the benefits of supporting the emerging ‘knowledge economy’ through improved access to, arts and cultural activities as a catalyst for growth and innovation.” The idea is one Americans know well: With high unemployment among the young and a workforce that relies heavily on foreign labor, there are frustrated people who want to be productive members of society and they are watching too much Saudi capital being offshored — a social and economic double whammy. Nafisee’s hope is for KSA to become a first world economy, and that is something that cannot occur without massive societal change.

Dana Awartani, I went away and forgot you. A while ago I remembered. I remembered I’d forgotten you. I was dreaming. Sand-painted floor detail of from video installation at safar.
Dana Awartani, I went away and forgot you. A while ago I remembered. I remembered I’d forgotten you. I was dreaming. Video still from installation at safar.

I mention here my conversation with Nafisee not only because he was responsive and engaged, but because while I have met and talked with dozens of Saudi artists and curators both in the kingdom and the US, it has been a far rarer thing to have a one on one sit-down with an Aramco Vice President who is willing to speak on the record about cultural change. Corporate interests

Zahra Al-Ghamdi, The Labyrinth and Time at safar. Al-Ghamdi, pictured on the left, has a PhD and is on the faculty of Art and Design at King Abdulaziz University.

worldwide, whose goals are increasing profits, are often at odds with positive social and environmental objectives. It would be sensible to maintain a position of distrust when it comes to the positions of an oil company, but Nafisee asserts a path of common interest for the Saudi people, the government and Aramco. It’s not easy to trust promises of change in a kingdom largely funded by a single state-owned company. But positive change is undeniably happening, and in this case doing the right thing clearly makes economic sense for KSA. It’s in their interest to employ more Saudis — including younger Saudis (two-thirds of Saudis are 30 or younger) and women, who now only comprise 22 percent of the workforce.

Diversifying the Saudi economy will better protect against oil price drops and a better-educated

An exhibition scene in Jeddah that was part of the many 21,39 and Saudi Art Council exhibitions and events during the art fair.

information society will ensure more technological and economic independence. My guess is that women over 40 will be able to drive in KSA within about a year. Still, the status of women is unacceptable by American standards, and we can assume there will be significant opposition within the country to any steps forward. Americans have long asserted that democracy is slow and messy, but the truth is that virtually all significant societal change is slow and messy. It is my ethic of American democracy that compels me to support a progressive approach to social policy. However small they may seem to some, I do not see this as “baby steps.” It is not always easy to see through the haze of difference to find and support change that appears so far behind where we want things to be. To do this, you need to look closely, and to look closely, you need to engage.

Arif Alnomay, Our steps are counted and limited, at Pharan. This work was a surprise to me, since it depicts the chaotic state of Yemen by focusing on the roadside sellers of gasoline.

Nafisee is a sharp but eminently affable man who speaks perfect English since he studied, as so many Saudis do, in America. Saudi Arabia is a nation of about 30 million people but they send 150,000 young people to study in the United States every year — second only to China. This is the crux of the cultural connection: Those students return to the kingdom with a robust understanding of American culture and values — an unbreakable bridge. This also feeds the Saudis’ nuanced understanding of American politics and culture. It is, for example, not only how but why they have become top social media consumers. The Saudis are already engaging American culture; and we should not miss this opportunity to turn that into a two-way street.

Manal A-Dowayan, Crash at safar. The artist’s work was also included in Phantom Punch.

Perspective about Saudi culture is not just a question of American ignorance: It would be an understatement to say that the kingdom hasn’t been a particularly open place. But it is now moving towards transparency — an important American value. One of the most haunting works of art I saw in Jeddah was by Manal Al-Dowayan, who has a Masters in Systems Analysis and Design from the Royal College of Arts in London. Her piece, Crash, features diagrams, data and images relating to how many women teachers die in horrible car crashes in KSA since they often have to be driven long distances to teach the children of remote villages. It’s a gruesome work, but it reaches deeply into controversial societal issues, such as the fact that women cannot now drive legally in the kingdom. A cursory consideration might see this work as overshadowing Arwa Al Neami’s images of women driving bumper cars in the exhibition Phantom Punch, but we must not underestimate the nuanced intelligence of these artists.

From Phantom Punch at Bates College Museum of Art: Arwa Al Neami, Never Never Land IV, 2014, photograph, courtesy of the artist and Pharan Studio, Jeddah

Al Neami’s images depict women in Niqab (the veil of the sartorial hijab that largely covers the face) and to get these images, the artist (allegedly) had to smuggle her camera into the park and take the photos without permission. (I say “allegedly” because I had no problem getting permission from women in Niqab to take their picture.) This gets interesting particularly when considering such an act in the US: It would not be strictly legal to show photos of individual Americans on bumper cars without their permission. But Neami’s subjects, of course, are unrecognizable — and that is by design.

My most unexpected insight had to do with being around women who wear Niqab. I hadn’t imagined the extent to which such dress is dynamic. From moment to moment as we moved from public to private spaces in galleries, buses, airports, hotel lobbies, meeting rooms, and so on, dress expectations change. It seemed every time I saw one of the leaders of the group (leadership seemed to default to women, at least in my limited experience, but it was among many scenarios and scenes), she was in varied states of being veiled — from complete Niqab to bare feet and skinny jeans while our group ran up and down sand dunes near Aramco’s Well 7 at Dammam — the site where commercially significant supplies of oil were first discovered in KSA.

Artist Manual-Bahanshal with her work.

The art I saw in KSA was not afraid of being critical of society — and that is a great thing for Saudis, Sunni societies and the entire global community. (This is not to say that Saudis have rights equal to our First Amendment, but the conversations are real and, most importantly, they are moving towards openness.) Saudi society is not monolithic: There are differences and debates at every level. And the right to dissent and debate freely are values we should support. I was reminded of this when I saw a work at a show more geared to emerging and student artists. It was a bench in KSA green with three different chair backs to it. My initial take was to see it in international terms, but the  Niqab-wearing artist, Manai Bahanshal, explained it was about factionalization within Saudi society. We may take dissent as a negative, like Ms. Bahanshal, but it can also lead to dialogue if the parties share her goal of conflict resolution. However subtle, this is a model for a progressive society.

Installation of Ahmad Angawi’s work.

What I took away from my Saudi experience is the idea that the U.S. should be encouraging open gates — not, say, shuttering them with travel bans. What I see in KSA is that American culture — highlighted by social media but punctuated by art — is helping Saudis move their society forward on many levels.This is in America’s interest on many levels as well. Stronger economic partners lead to more robust trade. Stronger cultural partners lead to more robust discourse and dialogue. Things are changing and changing quickly in Saudi Arabia. Artists are part of that, even in a place like Maine. This is our Saudi moment: We should continue to build this road and keep it moving in the right direction.

Daniel Kany is an editor of the Maine Arts Journal: The UMVA Quarterly as well as the weekly art critic for the Portland Press Herald | Maine Sunday Telegram.