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Expression is Freedom 

Sculpture by Tess Dalhgren - PHOTO BY DEREK LACTAOEN
  • Photo by Derek Lactaoen
  • Sculpture by Tess Dalhgren

Ppppppppppppeeeeeeeeeeeennnnnnniiiiiissssssssssssssss. Offended? Or did you just say to yourself: "Wow, that's one really long penis that Marcy started her column with"? I felt compelled to do that in the hope that someone will rip this page off and tape it to the wall of the greenhouse at Humboldt State. Better yet, pick up a copy of last week's Lumberjack newspaper, rip out page 4 and tape that to the wall of the HSU greenhouse. You can get a copy on campus in the Lumberjack office in Gist Hall.

Last month art students at Humboldt installed throughout the campus sculptures they created over the past year. Tess Dahlgren created a sculpture she installed in the campus greenhouse that Lumberjack reporter Derek Lactaoen described this way: "The naked orange thighs stuck out of the large flower pot like they were organic. The buttock curved into the hips where the body ended; in place of skin were the ripples and ridges of a pumpkin. Instead of a penis, there was a 15-foot-long green vine that wrapped around the sculpture's leg and down the flower pot."

It turns out that the sculpture offended the building coordinator of the greenhouse. He ordered it removed.

Wait. Maybe I should redo the beginning of this column. After all, I do know that 12-year-old Ciara Cheli-Colando reads it. She wrote a letter to the Journal two years ago after I told KHSU it was time to pull the plug on Garrison Keillor. But then again, if she or any other young person old enough to read a newspaper doesn't know what a penis is, well folks, its time to sit down with your children and discuss male and female anatomy. While discussing this column over our dinner table, my 6-year-old daughter warned me that I should not use the word penis. I asked her why. Doesn't every boy have one?

The 2010 U.S. Census counted 156,533,988 males in this country and that is a lot of penises. Now Dahlgren sculpted a penis unusually long (the average non-erect size according to is 3.75 inches) but that's what art is all about. From the photo in the Lumberjack, I can see that she was trying to say something about the connection between people and plants. Her penis is more plantlike than phallic.

If we are going to start pulling phallic art from public spaces let's start with the Washington Monument. Meanwhile, you can't walk into a museum without bumping into a nude sculpture. There is rarely a fuss made over female nudes, although in 2002 then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft spent $8,000 of taxpayer money for blue drapes to cover two giant Art Deco sculptures in the Great Hall of the Justice Department in Washington. He was embarrassed to be photographed in front of naked boobs. I was embarrassed to have him as my attorney general. Meanwhile, Michaelango's statue of David, one of the most beautiful statues in the world, displays the biblical king in all his biblical splendor.

I could go on about our problems with the penis but this column is about art and censorship. Humboldt State should be a campus that celebrates rather than censors art. After all, art is one of the most popular majors on campus, second only to biology. And that's not including the students who major in theater, film, dance or music, all of them artists, too.

Of all places in the county, Humboldt State should be the place of freest expression. Universities are places to exchange and consider different ways of thinking. We have a whole category of general education classes at HSU we call "Ways of Thinking" classes, and you can't graduate without taking at least one.

HSU allows building coordinators to approve or disapprove art displays, and there are 60 different building coordinators. What kind of a policy on art is that at a university? Here's how the policy should read: "The artist will tell the building coordinator the size and shape of the art installation and explain how the art will be installed, and the building coordinator will determine if the size or positioning will obstruct traffic or in any other way pose a physical danger to the people who use the building."

What the art represents, what it looks like, or what a person might think when they look at it should have nothing to do with the building coordinator's decision. True art always offends somebody. People found Monet's paintings offensive when they first came out.

Suppression of expression at HSU drives me insane. The school has the most convoluted First Amendment policy. You can't thumbtack a flier to a bulletin board without first getting it stamped at the University Center. You can't chalk on the sidewalk without getting a permit. You can't give a speech using a bullhorn without a permit and only at lunchtime and only on the university quad. The restrictions make me want to thumbtack onto a bulletin board an unpermitted notice that I will scream out obscenities into a bullhorn in front of the Art Building at 3 p.m. as I stand on a chalk drawing of a snake-like penis.

Last week I walked across the pedestrian bridge that connects HSU to G Street in Arcata. Someone had spray-painted these words on the paved walkway: "Expression is Freedom." The person who painted those words risked jail time and a $1,000 fine.

Dahlgren worked on her art piece for months before she felt it was good enough for public display. After its removal she told the Lumberjack: "I was upset because of the fact that I could put so much time and energy into it and someone could be like, ‘I don't like it' and take it down. Art is made for people to talk about issues. To silence it is like silencing a minority. No one's going to see it and talk about it so why make it in the first place?"

Tess, you are wrong. To silence art is to silence us all. 

Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State.She congratulates her current and former students on the Lumberjack newspaper. Last month it took second place for general excellence at the California Newspaper Publishers Association Better Newspapers Contest and Third Place for Best All-Around Non-Daily Student Newspaper at the Society of Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence multi-state competition. 

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About The Author

Marcy Burstiner

Marcy Burstiner is a professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. If there's something about the media that confuses you, e-mail her at [email protected].

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