Loaded Symbols and Artistic Responsibility

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Image from Austin Peay State University’s NAACP chapter Instagram feed showing the controversial student art project.

On Monday, students and faculty at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee, were horror-struck when they found six nooses, each one a different color of the rainbow, hanging from a tree on campus. It was the work of an art student who claimed she was making a project about “the cycles of life and death.” The school’s chapter of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People quickly posted a picture of the nooses on Instagram with the caption “So this is at #APSU.” Unsurprisingly, the first several comments on the post are from reps at NBC, CBS, and the New York Times asking for permission to use the photo.

When I first read the story on the Tennessean’s site the following day, my chin immediately dropped to my chest. [Estes is the lead visual art writer at the Tennessean.] As a native Tennessean and active participant in the arts here, I found it excruciating, upsetting, and cringingly ignorant. When I read an article about it in the New York Times on Wednesday, I felt even more ashamed and frustrated. I felt pain for the students who had to stumble upon such a sight unawares. I felt embarrassed for the artist and the department. I was left asking myself: How is this possible that in 2016, we have not yet internalized why symbols matter?

The image, now widely circulated, has caused uproar among artists, activists, and university art departments. While it seems easy to castigate the student or the professor for allowing this horrendous misstep to happen, the real issue at hand is much bigger and much worse.

There is an inexcusable cultural blind spot in the South. Among other things, it is a glaring lack of education regarding imagery and symbols—their meaning, power, and unmitigated capacity to make people feel threatened. These minatory icons—nooses, Confederate flags, swastikas, blood drop crosses, etc.—are not symbols that can be recontextualized or reappropriated in art. They aren’t even “loaded images.” They are emblems of hate. Period. According to the student who made the work, she didn’t intend for it to be a message of hate or intolerance—and I believe her. But, in the end, it just doesn’t matter. Art is, in many ways, autonomous; once it is out in the world, it takes on a life of its own. Artists need to be educated and aware of what that life will likely be.

The bottom line is that artists do not get to decide what their artwork conveys to the public. Thus, they must be very, very careful and thoughtful in their choices. There is a critical responsibility bestowed upon visual artists, writers and other performers who put their work into the public sphere. And that responsibility should be recognized, acknowledged, and taken seriously. Symbols and certain images mean what they mean, and an artist’s good intention does little to alter that.

Mural by artist Sheila B. that was removed after protests.
Painting by artist Sheila B. that was removed from public view after protests following the Charleston Emanuel AME Church massacre in 2015.

Not long ago, Nashville’s art community experienced a debacle heated enough to prompt a grassroots citywide meeting and panel discussion about race, diversity, and responsibility in the visual arts. The controversy centered around a painting by artist Sheila B., called Southern Motel, that prominently featured an image of a Confederate flag. It was hung on public view in a restaurant downtown. After the Charleston massacre and subsequent petitioning of the South Carolina Confederate Flag in mid 2015, a Facebook group called for the Nashville painting to be taken down, and it was soon removed and returned to the artist. Some people were up in arms claiming it was an unfair act of censorship; others felt that the painting was incontrovertibly offensive and did not belong on public display; and others had yet to figure out where they stood on the matter.

During the meeting, which was organized by Nashville artist Julia Martin, dozens of people, black and white, shared their thoughts and feelings about the painting. People cried, they yelled, they hugged. It was a transformative few hours, to say the least. By the end of the meeting, the vast majority of the attendees walked away with a newfound understanding of exactly why the painting needed to be taken down. Many of the attendees had no idea the degree to which the Confederate Flag, just the very sight of it, threatened minorities. The education that happened over the course of those a few short hours made a real difference.

In the wake of that national tragedy, the Confederate flag had undeniably transitioned from an arguably ambiguous emblem of “Southern pride” to a blatant symbol of hate. Though many people had long viewed it as a racist emblem, it was, in that moment, brought to the attention of some Southerners more than ever before. As a result, regardless of the painter’s intentions, which she defended as entirely innocuous, the symbol had come to mean something “new” to the public and the painting had to come down.

Which brings me to my next point. Symbols evolve over time. A symbol once benign can become predatory. Those of us working in the visual arts must constantly evaluate and reevaluate what certain images mean. Not just to the image-maker, but to the viewers.

Let this be a multifaceted lesson to artists of every kind. Educate yourself. Consider the broader audience. Be keenly aware of what you’re propagating when using racist/homophobic symbols or “loaded imagery” in your work. And for crying out loud, please get a second, third, and fourth opinion if you are unsure whether or not your artwork is going to offend an enormous sector of society and mortify the entire country. Because, yes, art can still do that. It is still that powerful.

Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She is the lead visual art writer at The Tennessean and an editor at Number, an independent arts journal of the South. She also works with David Lusk Gallery and Cumberland Art Conservation, and is cofounder of the gallery Threesquared. Her writing has also been featured in The Bitter Southerner, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, ArtNow, and others. For more: saraestes.com.

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