Your Art Hurt Some VERY IMPORTANT Feelings

Art, Politics & Current Events

People rarely get killed or jailed in American over art. But it would be wrong to suggest that Muslims outraged over depictions of Mohammed are the only people getting upset about artistic endeavors.

It's also unfair to focus on modern university administrators being censorious, as if they have an active interest in suppressing dissenting speech. Sometimes they're just cowardly and servile.

In Laramie, Wyoming, the University of Wyoming allowed the installation of a piece called “Carbon Sink: What Goes Around, Comes Around,” by British artist Chris Drury, which uses coal and Wyoming wood to make a point about coal mining, or the environment, or man's inhumanity to man, or something.

Courtesy of the University of Wyoming Art Museum

The piece was removed ahead of schedule. University administrators claimed that it was removed early because of rain damage.

But investigative reporting revealed that the university actually removed it early in response to anger and offense from the coal industry and their friends in Wyoming's state legislature.

Yes, the University lied. It lied in the face of coal industry indignation, and threats of reduced support:

The sculpture felt like a “stab in the back,” said Wyoming Mining Association President Marion Loomis, in an email that day to Don Richards, then the university’s director for governmental and community affairs.

The energy industry pays millions in taxes, royalties and fees, he noted. Left unsaid: Those millions flow through state coffers to the university.

“Don, what kind of crap is this?” Loomis asked.

Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, fired off an email to oil and gas company officials and major university donors slamming the university for the sculpture.

“The next time the University of Wyoming is asking for donations it might be helpful to remind them of this and other things they have done to the industries that feed them before you donate,” Hinchey wrote. “They always hide behind academic freedom but their policies and actions can change if they so choose.”

The university also lied in the face of elected officials who were eager to attack art to please their donors:

State legislators joined the attack. Legislators, primarily from coal-rich Campbell County, wrote university officials. They threatened to restrict the university’s funding, called for a hunt to find out which university officials knew about the sculpture ahead of time and decried the university for not knowing about the piece.

“It never ceases to amaze me how the UW invites folks in that spit in the face of the very system that writes the checks to pay the bills at the university,” wrote Rep. Elaine Harvey, R-Lovell, in an email to Buchanan.

Must the coal industry donate to a university system that features a rather mild piece of abstract art that wounds its tender fee-fees? No. It's free to withhold, and threaten to withhold, its donations for whatever damnfool reason it wants. But citizens should judge the industry and its executives (not to mention their legislative lapdogs) based on their actions, and act — and vote — accordingly. Next time the industry attempts to burnish its image with a donation, citizens and the media should ask: what strings come attached to this gift? Does the industry believe that the gift entitles them to ideological compliance from the recipient, and will their backers in the legislature reward that expectation?

Moreover, when a university reacts to pressure about something as mild as this piece of art, it's fair to ask — on what substantive issues is it caving to pressure? What academic classes are being vetted to comply with the demands of industry donors and their governmental supporters?

Michelle Nijhuis at The Last Word on Nothing contrasts this response to braver responses from administrators at other universities, and considers what might have been. She's also got good links to information about the case.

Hat tip: Alex Wild.

Last 5 posts by Ken White

39 Comments

38 Comments

  1. Nicholas Weaver  •  Oct 30, 2012 @9:03 am

    Silly administrators. A better excuse would be that coal is classed as a carcinogen, and thus the coal dust represented an immediate hazard to students…

    If they spun it right, they could have gotten an environmentalist student nutcase to give them the perfect excuse to remove it publicly.

  2. David  •  Oct 30, 2012 @9:56 am

    Wicked Sarlacc!

  3. En Passant  •  Oct 30, 2012 @10:04 am

    Agree with Nicholas Weaver's Oct 30, 2012 @9:03 am observation above.

    Along another line of spin, I also think much of the Wyoming Mining Association's butthurt is due to the art piece's title, not the piece itself.

    What if it had been called something else that suggested an entirely different view of coal mining and coal use? Say it was titled "Earth's Cornucopia of Natural Energy for Economic Progress".

    Aside from sounding vaguely like a caricature of old Soviet propaganda, the title suggests that the coal and timbers are spiraling out of the ground, not into the ground. It changes the expectation of the viewer from irony to an encomium to industrial and energy based economic progress.

    I don't think the Wyoming Mining Association would have responded the same.

  4. RavingRambler  •  Oct 30, 2012 @10:10 am

    Unless the logs were cut to size by hand, the coal mined with pick-axe and bucket, and the sod removed manually and the whole thing placed by manual labor I think it's more ironic than chiding. That's just me though.

  5. Davey  •  Oct 30, 2012 @11:09 am

    I'm not defending this, but… here is the situation in Wyoming. We have no state income tax, 4% sales tax and very little tax burden on citizens. As a matter of fact, residents are a net loss to the state – they use more in state & local services than they pay for.

    Who pays taxes in Wyoming? The energy sector. Mineral taxes basically pay for state government and public schools. On top of that, energy companies give enormous grants UW and to nonprofits across the state. One might understand why that relationship carries a lot of baggage.

  6. Gal  •  Oct 30, 2012 @11:12 am

    @RavingRambler: You do realize there are points in between manual labor and energy harnessed from coal, yes?

  7. Aaron  •  Oct 30, 2012 @12:23 pm

    You failed to report on one of the most despicable details, taken from Michelle's post:

    "But since the installation of Carbon Sink, the Wyoming legislature has passed legislation requiring that art on parts of the university campus must be approved by the state governor and the UW School of Energy Resources governing board."

    Because that particular governing board has so much to do with art.

  8. Jeremy  •  Oct 30, 2012 @2:27 pm

    The coal industry is wrong to pressure anyone to remove art.

    The coal industry is also rightfully incensed at how they've been portrayed in the past decade.

  9. ElSuerte  •  Oct 30, 2012 @2:47 pm

    I'm sort of at a loss for a position here. On one hand, I disapprove of censoring, but like the mining folks, I wouldn't want to pay for somebody to paint an 'ElSuerte is a Jackass' mural.

    At least they didn't arrest them like in England, http://www.mediabistro.com/alltwitter/social-media-arrests-uk_b30526 , or kill them like in too many countries to count.

  10. John Barleycorn  •  Oct 30, 2012 @3:19 pm

    Such a shame not to have used the Carbon Sink as the base for a wickedly righteous campus bonfire that could have gone on for a few weeks at least.

    Think off all the social research that was squandered.

    That party could have brought them all out.

    I can see it now just before dawn on the first night. An idealist young vegan student and a coal exec hand in hand staring into the fire utterly consumed with the blaze while the governors aide and a lobbyist go down on each other under the bleachers just as a few fraternity members ponder the metallurgy of a melting keg.

    Everyone's a winner, everyone had an out, and the show must go on.

  11. somebody  •  Oct 30, 2012 @3:23 pm

    @ElSuerte: It looks like the piece itself was funded by an anonymous donor, and plunked on the campus by the artist himself; the university's intervention in the artwork's creation doesn't appear to have stretched beyond "you have permission to display these logs and coal chunks on our campus."

    The argument can be made that since the artwork was installed on public property, it was taxpayer funded — but I get the feeling that any debates about that, in this comments section, are bound to get ugly.

  12. somebody  •  Oct 30, 2012 @3:46 pm

    adding: I'm seeing that this artwork was also funded by the state Cultural Trust Fund. A look at Wyoming's financial reports indicates that the Cultural Trust Fund is a "permanent fund," meaning that it's essentially a big ol' bank account that sits and collects interest payments. The interest payments, but not the fund itself, can be used to spend money on things like burnt logs and piles of coal.

    I haven't looked into information about where the Cultural Asset Fund's principal balance originated. It may have been raised from government bonds paid for by taxpayers, or it may have established by benevolent donors. My knowledge of permanent funds is that they're usually created by donors, not by taxpayers. Whatever the case, however, I still think it's likely that this artwork was either completely unfunded by taxpayers, or just funded by taxpayers, many years ago, when the fund was first established.

    The argument can still be made that by funding the creation of this artwork, rather than artwork supporting other political viewpoints, the state of Wyoming is funding opposition to coal. But it's getting very, very tangential by now.

  13. Roscoe  •  Oct 30, 2012 @4:53 pm

    Mixed feeling here. There seems to be a double standard with respect to a public official's initial decision to display a piece of "art" (using that term loosely to describe the thing in question) and his later decision to remove it.

    I mean, if the high school librarian decided the school would not purchase "50 Shades of Grey" I doubt anyone would question her decision. However once the book hits the shelves, a parent complains and the school board wants to remove it, the cries of censorship go out.

    Same thing here. When approached about hosting the piece the university administrator could have said "hell no, it's ugly as sin and would offend the folks who pay for this place." So why is it such a problem for the administrator to say "well, we screwed up, it's not appropriate here, so we want to take it down?"

  14. Brandon  •  Oct 30, 2012 @5:03 pm

    Roscoe, are you familiar with the sunk cost fallacy?

  15. Ken  •  Oct 30, 2012 @5:09 pm

    I don't know, Roscoe. I think there's a difference, particularly for a university, between "I don't find this art aesthetically pleasing" and "I object to the message of this art."

  16. Brian Dunbar (@bdunbar)  •  Oct 30, 2012 @5:12 pm

    All I'm seeing is that picture and the words in my head 'world's larget BBQ pit' and thinking of Paul Bunyan's blue ox, Babe, on the grill.

    The part of me that still hearkens for North Carolina (not a big part) wonders how many pigs you could roast in that sucker.

  17. Ken  •  Oct 30, 2012 @5:13 pm

    That would offend the powerful University of Wyoming Vegan Society.

  18. Roscoe  •  Oct 30, 2012 @5:20 pm

    Ken – A difference, sure, but I am not sure it is a meaningful one. People call this a censorship case, but I look on it as more of a government decision whether to host a particular message. I think the government can decide not to host a message either because it finds the message ugly, or because it doesn't agree with the message (or for lots of other reasons).

  19. Bearman Cartoons  •  Oct 30, 2012 @5:20 pm

    What is sadder is that the legislature passed a bill saying that the state now has oversight on deciding what art installations can go up on the campus

    http://wyofile.com/2012/10/carbon-sink-controversy/

  20. James Pollock  •  Oct 30, 2012 @6:59 pm

    I'm going to go ahead and ask… what exactly is it about this art that offends the coal industry, or any of the power players within it? I just don't see it.
    Now, the coal industry has faced a bit of a PR problem of late, between definitely being the cause of acid rain and (apparently depending on your political persuasion) perhaps also being on the hook for some part of climate change, and the fact that nobody's really a big fan of coal smoke (but not quite enough against it to actually stop burning it for electricity or steel). Still, I can't see anything in this piece of artwork that should drive them into enraged political action. Disclaimer: I live in a state that is far more tree-oriented than coal oriented.

  21. C. S. P. Schofield  •  Oct 30, 2012 @8:46 pm

    Since 'art' like this installation could not exist if it didn't tickle some special interests, I am less than horrified to learn that it can get ashcanned by yet other special interests.

    Let's face it, the vast majority of 'art' these days is political commentary with a thin veneer of artistic patter. As art it could not possibly survive on its own merits. Asq political commentary, it depends on its claim to be 'art' to excuse its installation at public expense.

    I have no problem with twits like Andres Serrano (sp?) making 'art' like Piss Christ. What annoyes me is that the kind of people who like it don't pay for it thmselves. They get the State to pay for it with money gotten, in large part, from people it will offend.

    Frankly, this seems to be more of the same.

  22. David  •  Oct 30, 2012 @8:46 pm

    @Roscoe

    I think the government can decide not to host a message either because it finds the message ugly, or because it doesn't agree with the message (or for lots of other reasons).

    So you'd be ok with an arrangement in which all art works (pictorial, literary, whatever), and indeed all work product, at a public university consisted of state-approved propaganda?

  23. Ae Viescas  •  Oct 30, 2012 @9:11 pm

    But citizens should judge the industry and its executives (not to mention their legislative lapdogs) based on their actions, and act — and vote — accordingly.

    Excellent idea! We can start a boycott of… coal! Except no one actually buys coal. Energy companies do and they are enormous monopolies that follow their bottom line.

    Or maybe we can vote against the current coal crony and for his opponent who is merely a *future* coal crony. Or maybe an oil crony… nothing can possibly go wrong there!

    Or possibly, just possibly, we can admit we're all just fucked. =D

    (The first step to a solution is admitting you have a problem)

  24. AlphaCentauri  •  Oct 30, 2012 @9:33 pm

    I don't even see the sculpture as insulting. I interpret the carbon sink is that the coal is storing the energy from ancient trees that came from carbon dioxide and sunlight, all concentrated in highly compact form after millions of years. It's the charming side of fossil fuels. I think the coal industry needs to lighten up.

  25. Brian Dunbar (@bdunbar)  •  Oct 30, 2012 @9:50 pm

    offend the powerful University of Wyoming Vegan Society.

    We'd win 'em over with the pig pickin'. Nobody can resist one of those. A thousand pig pig pickin'? In Wyoming? You'd be recruiting vegans from as far downwind as Minnesota.

  26. James Pollock  •  Oct 30, 2012 @11:45 pm

    "So you'd be ok with an arrangement in which all art works (pictorial, literary, whatever), and indeed all work product, at a public university consisted of state-approved propaganda?"

    Sure, why not? That's the sort of thing that sorts itself out all by itself in the long run. Were I a student at such a place, one of these possibilities seems likely. A) if I agree with the propaganda (a 50% likelihood, right?) then I don't mind that all the art is propaganda. B) If I don't agree with the propaganda, then either 1) I fight back by doing some combination of guerrilla art (aka "graffitti") and art in off-campus venues, or 2) I consider finding a school that matches my temperament better. So, two forces are at work: Either the pushback causes the administration to adjust its art policy, or the pushback is insignificant. Then, the students who pick that particular school will be the ones who tend to agree with the way it is run, with people who disagree with the way it is run dropping out or transferring to schools that are run differently.

    Of course, the preceeding applies to the 2% to actually care about the artwork on their campus. The other 98% make their decisions based on more important factors, like how good the football team is.

  27. oldnumberseven  •  Oct 31, 2012 @3:38 am

    The artist should have insulted Mohammed, as well as the coal industry, then everything would be fine.

  28. Roscoe  •  Oct 31, 2012 @7:56 am

    David writes:

    "So you'd be ok with an arrangement in which all art works (pictorial, literary, whatever), and indeed all work product, at a public university consisted of state-approved propaganda?"

    And you would be okay with me having the legal right to walk over to UCLA and hang a banner saying "Nazis are Cool" from the student center?

  29. jp  •  Oct 31, 2012 @10:09 am

    "I'm going to go ahead and ask… what exactly is it about this art that offends the coal industry, or any of the power players within it?"

    Just a guess from a former Wyomingite…

    An Iowa corn farmer views land as something to use – he isn't under any illusion that his corn fields are unspoiled wilderness. And, to a large extent, people in WY have the same viewpoint, i.e. they don't primarily think of land as something that should be treated as a preserve on any kind generalized Gaia basis. In general, people in WY are happy with coal and logging and, especially, grazing.

    But people in WY are also big fans of recreational use – hunting, fishing, and just being out in the mountains. And those don't really conflict with grazing, and they don't even particularly conflict with mining – even a big open pit mine doesn't cover much of WY.

    The art work used trees that were beetle killed, by beetles that are normally killed by cold winters. Those patches of beetle killed trees have been spreading rapidly over the last few years, and I think that's what the coal companies are worried about – when elk hunters and fishermen find the forest is all dead because of the beetles, and if they start to think the coal mine might have something to do with that, then they aren't going to like the coal company very much.

    People live in WY because they love it – you don't move there because it's where the high paying careers are. And because good jobs are scarce, industries that bring good jobs are welcome – until they start messing with what makes WY great. That, IMHO, might be why the art struck such a nerve.

    Just a guess, of course.

  30. nerdbert  •  Oct 31, 2012 @1:23 pm

    When approached about hosting the piece the university administrator could have said "hell no, it's ugly as sin and would offend the folks who pay for this place."

    You deal with a different class of university administrators than I did.

    I was at a college of business reception visiting some old colleagues years ago when the dean came up and talked quite proudly of the new abstract steel artwork in front of the building. When I didn't react, he asked what I thought of it. I was pretty blunt, "Well, if instead of spending $100K on that you'd had a bunch of drunken frat guys dump it out in front in the night you'd be screaming for a police investigation of vandalism."

    Yeah, it didn't go over too well with him. But there were a lot of stiffled guffaws from some of the other professors around me.

  31. C. S. P. Schofield  •  Oct 31, 2012 @5:48 pm

    Mark me down as an aging reactionary, but the older I get the more I am inclined to think there should be a general ban on public art (that is, art displayed in a public space AND payed for by the public) where there is no reasonable chance that the viewer will be able to deduce what the 'art' is about by looking at it.

    This would reduce public art to representational statuary and a few widely recognized symbols. It wouldn't completely solve the 'Modern Art' problem, but it would reduce the number of intellectual in-jokes paid for by the people the joke is on.

  32. Differ  •  Nov 1, 2012 @3:53 am

    They would have had to take it down when people in the northeast started to complain it upset them becuase it resembles the hurricane which just devastated their state…
    Hurt feelings matter….

  33. Christopher  •  Nov 1, 2012 @4:04 am

    This would reduce public art to representational statuary and a few widely recognized symbols.

    Symbols like, I don't know, a spiral? There's a picture of the artwork right here on this very webpage, and you can see it's neither obscene nor a big ugly pile of metal garbage.

    Just because somebody got mad at it, that doesn't make it Piss Christ.

    And you know, if you're making millions in Coal you should harden the fuck up to the fact that coal is a pollutant. I'm sorry, it just is. Don't be a baby about it.

  34. C. S. P. Schofield  •  Nov 1, 2012 @5:16 am

    Christopher,

    The 'installation' is still fundamentally ugly. No artistic craft went into it construction, which could have been accomplished with Ikea-like instructions by a troop of day laborers. It looks like an abandoned campfire, and needs an explanation for the viewer to 'get it'. In short it is a typical piece of Modern Art; ugly for the sake of ugly, basically skill-proof, and illustrative in a way that even the most 'narrative' of the pre-Raphealites weren't.

    If there is an actual market for such 'art', fine. But if, as I strongly suspect, it exists solely to tap into public endowments, if it cannot survive without tax money, then to Hell with it.

    Preventing an artist from making something like this is Censorship. Declining to pay for it is thrift.

    The University's decision to remove the 'sculpture' ahead of schedule is mildly troubling. Yes, the coal people are exaggerating; "a stab in the back"?; oh please. The problem is that "That thing is an ugly, smelly, un-artistic imposition" is not recognized by the Intellectual Class as legitimate criticism. That needs to change. We have entire museums full of un-artistic crap that needs page long explanations. Most of it is tiresome little in-jokes understood by a tiny handful of fantastically unimportant twits.

    The wrong here is that the University agreed to host the thing in the first place. From the sound of things, the 'artist' intended to stir up a controversy – indeed it is hard to see what other justification of the ugly thing might be offered. Getting your 'art' torn down is a basic part of such a stance. If he wasn't ready for the possibility he should have done something pretty.

  35. paul hughes  •  Nov 2, 2012 @1:41 pm

    Lying is bad, but not sponsoring or subsidizing (i.e., allowing to exist on one's property) an art piece (even an expressive one that is "speech") does not strike me as the same thing as censoring speech.

  36. Kevin Malone  •  Nov 4, 2012 @8:39 am

    Goes to show who the universities truly serve. They are preparing us to serve our corporate overlords.

  37. Kevin Malone  •  Nov 4, 2012 @8:40 am

    Reminds me of when a pro-labor mural was taken down from the walls of the U.S. Labor Department due to complaints from corporations.

  38. C. S. P. Schofield  •  Nov 4, 2012 @9:13 am

    Kevin Malone;

    And the bigger the State gets, the more it will serve Corporate interests instead of ours. In Socialist/Communist States, since a Corporation is just an extension of the State they count, and people don't.

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