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Shocking Art @ Your Library

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.



  1. I usually wouldn’t be in favor of censoring art, but in this case I might be. I’m an artist and librarian at an art college, and for many years I thought I would never be in favor of removing or covering artworks because someone was offended.

    And then one day I was having a drink at my local bar, a bar which hosts monthly art shows. This month’s show was photography, taken in the South, and one of the photos was a close-up of a confederate flag. An African-American woman came in and asked the owner to take down the photo, because it made the space feel un-welcoming to her. The two of them had a conversation about the intentions of the artist, and then the owner agreed to take down the photo.

    I sat and watched the whole interaction, and agree with the decision – mainly because a bar is not an art gallery, and people who come in don’t always know whether something hanging on the wall is “art”, or if it’s just a bunch of pictures the owner likes, and is using to set a tone for the space. I think the same can be said for a library reading room.

    When we see controversial art in an art gallery, we have some idea that the artist’s intent is to provoke conversation around controversial issues. When we see artwork in a library, or other space, the initial assumption is that that artwork has been collected by the library for some particular reason – because the artist is associated with the library or region, because the library holds the papers of the artist, or because the library purchased the art specifically for the reading room. If this is your expectation, seeing an image that shocking takes on other possible meanings: e.g., is there a reason the library wants this image to set a particular tone in the reading room?

    I can understand an argument for this artwork generating conversation around this aspect of our history among the library’s patrons, and having a broader range of people see Kara Walker’s work is a good thing, but I think her work benefits from the type of conceptual framing a gallery space gives.

    If the library had a gallery space, and had text on the walls providing more information about Walker’s work, this would also resolve the issue.

  2. Arthur Wendt says:

    Africans suffered brutality at the hands of white Europeans for centuries. The racism engendered by this behavior lingers on in this country, and is often shocking in its ugliness. An African American woman offended by the act depicted in this picture is justified in expressing herself so. It is a depiction of her ancestors in a subjugated and humiliated state. For a person of white/European descent to claim they’re the one who should be shocked by this picture is offensive in itself, and belittles the history of white on black brutality.

    The white Europeans were in absolute power during the time period of this depiction, and the legacy of their abuse persists in every sector of society. If you’re white/European, go ahead and express shock over seeing it, but your people haven’t suffered hundreds of years of abuse. The people of the woman offended, did. A person of white/European descent hasn’t an inking as to what living with this legacy is like.

    I don’t like removing art for its shock content either, but I support the Newark library director’s position.

    • I believe you’re missing AL’s point. AL isn’t saying that white people should be offended or shocked by the image, but that white people are the ones being depicted in a negative way. The white people whose ancestors did the negative acts depicted in the image should be the ones who feel ashamed, not the black people viewing the image. The image is about exactly what you are talking about, the legacy of white on black brutality. I feel strange about that being allowed to be covered up by cloth, instead of being out there for peoplet to see and feel and discuss.

  3. Newark, NJ, covered that up? One of the worst cities in the USA for crime, and you can’t show such a picture under such circumstances in the library? And the librarians wanted it covered up? And the library director went along with that? Maybe I should drive up there or take NJ Transit and interview people to get a better picture. This can’t be. Heck, I could ride a bike there.

    AL, direct hit, again. Thanks.

    • Arthur Wendt says:

      How is offense over this picture and Newark’s high crime rate related? I have a hard time understanding how one has anything to do with the other.

      I live in a suburb of Newark, and work in the city within view of the main branch of the public library. I’ll ask around for you and save you the trip.

    • I think he’s saying that all of those criminals don’t deserve anything better . . . everyone in Newark acts like that. Or something. The usual twaddle. Like Barbara Bush and her comments about hurricanes and New Orleans residents.

  4. Sarah Last says:

    I find it offensive that the viewers who were upset totally ignored the historical context of the drawing and only concentrated on one image in particular.

  5. noutopian librarian says:

    @Arthur Wendt
    Leaving aside the question of whether Newark should cover or remove the piece in question (I tend to agree with Thierry), to contend that ancestors of white Europeans haven’t suffered centuries of repression, violence and abuse, or as Michelle believes, that we who have white ancestors should feel shamed by the acts of our ancestors, is both willfully ignorant of history as well as selectively prejudicial. Slavery has existed in most human cultures, and African slave trade preceded the trade by black and Arab Africans to Europeans by centuries, even millenia. As horrific as the slave trade to the United States and other Western nations is, it is part of a history of enslavement that spans the globe and is not specific to skin color. If whites of European ancestry should be collectively ashamed of the behavior of people who share their skin color and lived in the past, then people of African and Asian and native American should feel the same sense of shame. Perhaps those of African doubly so for enslaving others in their own lands to sell to the highest bidder, regardless of the buyers skin color.

    Slavery is a horrific aspect of human nature, as is rape and violence. All continue to thrive in the world right now – you don’t have to look into the past – look at Maritania, Sudan, Mali, and Niger, among others. Don’t forget to include Chinese and North Korean labor camps, forced servitude including forced prostitution in Bangladesh, and human trafficking for forced labor throughout the world, including the United States and Europe.

    The history and existence of slavery deserves education, artistic depiction such as that of Ms. Walker’s, and continued campaigning to abolish it’s existence. Accusatory attitudes toward people based on their skin color and presumed ancestry is ignorant and helps nothing. The fact that my Celtic ancestors enslaved Brits and were enslaved by Vikings, and so on into the dim reaches of humanity is part of history, not something I’m ashamed of though I would resist its return, even to my death. Perhaps a similar perspective regarding the continued existence of enslavement in black Africa would be more productive than shaming white people for the actions of people who may or may not be part of their ancestry.

  6. Cut Both Ways says:

    “Welcome to the public library! Remember slavery?”

  7. AL, I think you’re missing part of West’s point. She didn’t claim artwork needed to be uplifting. She said she needed to see something uplifting. The mission of the library is not the same as the mission of an art gallery. The library should be a welcoming and inviting place for patrons to visit. Walker’s work certainly has something to teach, but it does not create an environment where people can focus on research or enjoy the library space. I’m sure there are books in the library that explore the tragedies of black oppression in America’s past. Removing the picture will not deprive anyone who is seeking that information from acquiring it.

    I don’t think the picture should be covered up. It needs to be accessible, but not where it is now. Removing it is very different from banning a graphic novel for mature content. If you’re not interested in a book, you don’t have to read it, but a wall display is unavoidable. It is the library’s mission to provide access to the books the community has a demand for. It is not the library’s mission to force an image on people who haven’t sought it out.

  8. Also, There’s not a whole lot of deity-disguised-as-waterfowl rape going on in the world today, at least to my knowledge, so is it any wonder Leda and the Swan is a less threatening image to people than racial violence and garden variety human-on-human rape?

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