As a friend of Rutgers University and many of its affiliate associations, most notably Ratio Christi, the Atheist Student Alliance, and the Rutgers University Philosophy Club, I find it sadly necessary to comment on the controversy regarding the recent removal of a piece of artwork entitled “Vitruvian Man,” popularly known as “Dartboard Jesus.”
First and foremost, let us dispense with the pretense that this particular piece was taken down due to a regulation requiring all art displayed to have overt relevance to Rutgers or special significance to is students. Per Jessica Pellien, the director of communications at Rutgers University Libraries, official policy “requires art exhibitions and their pieces to be based on university events, curricular offerings, and topics of interest to the university community.” “Topics of interest” is purposefully broad and opaque, allowing from administrators’ arbitrary rulings and reversals, such as with Dartboard Jesus.
Rather, the true cause is clear. The individual who first drew attention to the topic, an alumna named Natalie Caruso, stated quite clearly that it was the perceived offensiveness of the speech to which she was objecting: “I asked them to take it down because I found it disrespectful and they refused. How is this acceptable!?”
This then is the heart of the matter at hand: where shall the community of students, staff, and faculty here at Rutgers University draw the line of demarcation between that speech which is publicly permitted and agreed acceptable and that which is so outrageously offensive as to be intolerable? At stake is nothing short the mission of the university universal: to disseminate, discus, and dissect daring and dangerous ideas in advancement of the totality of human wisdom and understanding.
Such a sober-minded pursuit of truth for its own sake is endangered not merely or even primarily by official sanctions of speech; whether Rutgers restores the removed piece is largely irrelevant. Rather, the real risk comes from a culture of stigmatizing, shaming, and self-censoring certain speech, specifically that which has the power to offend. Whether such speech is hateful, hurtful, or heretical, it is not through silencing but through scrutinizing that falsehoods and fallacies will be exposed as such.
You who are students have been sold two lies regarding your purpose in coming to college. The first is that you are a capitalist consumer in the business of buying class credits, that the value of your degree is your diploma and the job prospects it purchases you. The second is that campus is not the real world but a safe space, a walled garden wherein you can flourish only if protected from the predations of prejudice, and that function of faculty is to water you well, your own part in being educated entirely passive. Both these lies devalue your voice.
Rather, your role here is exactly the same as that of tenure track professors, research grant recipients, and doctorate candidates crafting their dissertations. You have every bit as much to contribute to the conversations which cast an analytical eye on everything from culture, history, politics, religion, scientific discoveries, and even the (often obtuse and opaque) meaning of modern art – and then to formulate an informed interpretation of such to put forth into the public discourse. Some of those novel notions will prove blasphemous, controversial, emotionally enraging, and utterly verboten – so be it. As academics, such is the price to be paid in pursuit of truth.
Finally, to the Christians on campus who called for or condoned the removal of Vitruvian Man, be forewarned: you are the group who has the most to lose by setting a precedent which further constricts what is regarded as acceptable speech in public – particularly religious speech. The day will come when your most basic beliefs and indispensable doctrines are deemed as offensive to others as Dartboard Jesus is to you. It is in your interest now to defend this work which you see as spiteful and sacrilegious, so that when you seek the same curtesy to continue to publically proselytize your beliefs, you will not be considered hypocritical, nor will religious rhetoric of any kind – favorable or unfavorable – have become verboten.
Rather, use this as an occasion on which to engage in model discourse. I’ve had conversations critiquing the piece with numerous students – Agnostics, Atheists, Catholics, Charismatics, Evangelicals, Deists, and one Buddhist art historian. Some read Vitruvian Man as innocuous, or even edifying. But others regarded it as an insult and a mockery meant to belittle them for their faith. They were among those most glad to see it removed. I cannot refute their interpretation; perhaps such was indeed the anonymous artist’s intent. But even if it were bereft of all aesthetic value and existed only to hurl hatred, the proper response is neither to silence it or stand in silence toward it, but rather to elevate the conversation.
My personal reading of Vitruvian Man is the ability of the divine to incarnate itself in the mundane and worldly. Even if I am wrong about the art, such is also the right course of action for those Christians offended by the piece: to take such a worldly work and allow for the divine to insert himself into conversation. Such cannot be achieved through offence and outrage, nor silencing and censorship, but rather only through a continual civil discourse in which all ideas – even those deeply personal and potentially offensive, particularly religious ones – are entertained and explored.
-Matthew J. Thériault
Editor-in-Chief of The Hub City Review