Lakeland, Fla — Free expression on campus isn’t childproofed — except at Polk State College, where part-time faculty member Serhat Tanyolacar’s artwork was rejected from a faculty art exhibition for being “too controversial.”
In early January, Polk State encouraged all faculty members in its arts program, including Tanyolacar, to submit artwork to a faculty exhibition scheduled to begin on Feb. 12. Tanyolacar submitted a piece titled “Death of Innocence,” which depicts several poets and writers juxtaposed with a number of pictures of President Donald Trump and other political figures engaging in sexual activity. Tanyolacar said the art is intended to highlight “moral corruption and moral dichotomy” and provoke debate.
In response to his submission, Polk State Program Coordinator Nancy Lozell informed Tanyolacar on Feb. 6 that his artwork would not be displayed. “After review by the gallery committee and the gallery administrator it was agreed upon that your piece Death of Innocence should not be displayed,” Lozell wrote, because the college “offers classes and volunteer opportunities to our collegiate charter high schools and other high schools in Polk County and we feel that that particular piece would be too controversial to display at this time.”
FIRE and the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote to Polk State President Angela Garcia Falconetti on Feb. 14, asking the college to reassess Tanyolacar’s submitted artwork in a viewpoint-neutral manner. FIRE is also asking students, alumni, faculty, and others concerned to write Falconetti as well.
“Members of the Polk State campus are not children, and they should not be treated as such,” said FIRE Senior Program Officer Sarah McLaughlin. “By sanitizing its campus to shield high school students from ‘controversial’ material in a faculty art exhibition, Polk State harms members of the college community by needlessly childproofing their campus, and high school students by underestimating their ability to cope with contentious or provocative artwork.”
In a February 16th meeting, Tanyolacar discussed “Death of Innocence” with Falconetti, Interim Vice President of Academic Affairs Donald Painter, Jr., and Professor of Art Holly Scoggins. The administrators offered shifting justifications for the rejection of the pie but again made clear that its “controversial” nature played a part in the decision. They reaffirmed that the faculty art exhibition — which opened on Feb. 12 — would not display “Death of Innocence.”
“For ‘Death of Innocence,’ my gallery display strategy is to engage dialogues with both the audience who appreciate the controversial imagery and the audience who may be offended by it,” Tanyolacar said. “No artwork should be barred from being exposed to the general audience in an academic institution. As educators and artists, we must accept that our students cannot be protected or disconnected from the ideological controversies by the institutionalized moral authority. In fact, controversial artworks are essential to the intellectual growth of our students, and displaying them should be encouraged by both the administration and the faculty.”
This is not Tanyolacar’s first campus art controversy. As a visiting assistant professor at the University of Iowa in 2014, Tanyolacar attempted to spark a debate about racial issues in the United States by placing a piece of public art consisting of newspaper clippings about racial violence printed on a Ku Klux Klan-style robe and hood in an open, outdoor area of campus and engaging with viewers about it. In response to student complaints, UI officials required Tanyolacar to remove the artwork, prompting FIRE and NCAC to call on the university to restate its commitment to freedom of expression.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending liberty, freedom of speech, due process, academic freedom, legal equality, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses.
The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), founded in 1974, is an alliance of 56 national nonprofit organizations, including literary, artistic, religious, educational, professional, labor, and civil liberties groups dedicated to promoting the right to free speech.