I expected to see some librarian response to the Newark Library covering up a controversial artwork (which I found via Infodocket), but haven’t seen much. Maybe I’ve been looking in the wrong place. ALA-OIF, what’s your response?!
What could be so bad about a drawing? Here’s what the controversy is about. From the news article:
Kara Walker, a renowned African-American artist who examines race, gender, sexuality and violence, created the drawing. It depicts the horrors of reconstruction, 20th-century Jim Crowism and the hooded figures of the Ku Klux Klan.
But that’s not what has people upset.
One part of the drawing shows a white man holding the head of a naked black woman to his groin.
A couple of the library staff members complained about the drawing, so the library director covered it up.
Apparently, Walker goes back and forth between winning MacArthur genius grants and making people upset over her work, probably for the same reasons.
The article has an image of the drawing, and it’s pretty shocking. It seems to me that we should find the drawing shocking. The question is, what exactly should we find shocking?
The article suggests a couple of things to be shocked at:
She said several employees came to her expressing shock that the library would display such graphic artwork.
“It can go back where it came from,” West said. “I really don’t like to see my people like this. We need to see something uplifting and not demeaning.”
First, there’s the question of “graphic artwork.” The depiction of rape of any kind is always “graphic” in that sense.
Second, there’s the question of meaning. Should artwork be “uplifting”? With that, there’s the related question of whether this drawing is “demeaning,” and if so, to whom?
As for the first question, it’s definitely “graphic,” but so what? Unless it’s pornography, it isn’t necessarily too “graphic” to display in a library. If there was a picture of Leda and the Swan, it would definitely be a depiction of rape. Would they object to that? Probably not.
Second, should art be “uplifting”? That’s rarely the way that artists and people who like art think about it. It can be uplifting, but challenging is also good. Shocking isn’t bad, either, depending on the shock.
So it’s probably more a question of a (presumably) African-American woman being understandably upset at “seeing her people like that.” Should she be upset? No one can answer that question. She’s upset and that’s that.
But we can speculate on who should be the most upset, and it’s not African-Americans. Who should be most upset at seeing “their people” portrayed like that? White people, that’s who. Not African-Americans, but Euro-Americans (which should totally replace “white people” as an expression, because only albinos are really white people).
The drawing is indeed shocking, but what should be most shocking to us isn’t the depiction of oral rape, but that such a thing occurred. It may be painful for an African-American woman to see her people like that, but it should be even more painful for Euro-Americans to see their people like that.
That’s exactly the kind of shock that should be delivered, and powerful and engaging art can deliver that shock.
Should it be in the library? Why not? To remove the drawing from the adult reference room because a few people are shocked would be no different than the recent stupid decision in South Carolina to ban a graphic novel because of a parental complaint, even though the novel was shelved in the adult section.
This isn’t a question of keeping children from viewing videos of rape and sexual abuse, which is what a lot of Internet porn seems to consist of. It’s a question of adults acknowledging that the world doesn’t always meet their moral demands and that they shouldn’t want or be able to control the tastes of other people.
I read the article and saw the drawing. I was shocked. I should have been. And it should remain in the library.