When Salem State University decided to hold an anti-Donald Trump art installation in honor of the outcome of the election, they expected the display to be controversial—but probably not among social justice warriors.
Salem State asked artist Garry Harley to create a special work for an exhibit entitled “State of the Union.” Harley elected to paint images depicting Nazis rounding up Polish Jews ahead of World War II, and display photographs of the Ku Klux Klan from the mid-20th century. The artist said he wanted the works to serve as a warning of what happens when hatred and bigotry go unchecked—and as commentary on the America that he felt would devolve further under President Trump.
Unfortunately for Harley, students at Salem State didn’t quite understand the distinction between portraying hatred as a reminder and promoting hatred. Thinking that Harley’s work encouraged violence, students claimed they were “triggered” by the controversial images, and petitioned the school to take the display down.
Campus social justice warriors first complained on Twitter: “Why did Salem state think it was OK to put a pic of the KKK in the art gallery during election time?? smh,” and “Salem State thinks this is an acceptable piece of art to hang up in their public art gallery.”
The university tried adding trigger warnings to the display and published a booklet to help triggered students put the art into context. When that didn’t work, they covered the glass gallery doors with white paper to prevent passersby from seeing the images unexpectedly.
They then held a “campus forum” where students shared the pain the artwork had caused them. Harley was present at the meeting, and tried to use famous works of art, including Picasso’s Guernica, to demonstrate how art can be used to help recall unsavory historical events. He told students, outright, that the images were meant as a critique of Trump’s rhetoric.
It was to no avail. Harley, frustrated, said the students simply weren’t capable of understanding, telling Inside Higher Ed: “I saw a lot of projected anger in the room, and it had nothing to do with a thoughtful understanding of the piece,” he said. “Part of displaying art at a campus is defending free expression and they weren’t prepared to do that.”
He called the students anger “overwhelming.” He even offered to remove the image of the Ku Klux Klan, but the students said that wouldn’t erase the damage done by the artwork.
Fearing no end to the emotional distress, the school finally agreed to remove the display. And the chair of the university’s gallery even issued an apology to the snowflakes who couldn’t handle the art. “Art is often intended to spark discussion about societal ills. In this case, it did just that,” she said. “We thank the students for sharing their views, and we look forward to working with them to determine how to move forward.”
Salem says it has no plans to put the art back up, at least for now, but that conversations about the display are ongoing. Until then, they won’t be trying their students’ patience with any contemporary works of art.