Politics of Artistic Expression

By
April 22, 2004

Students have flooded the Mills’ student news, with e-mails with
a range of concerns regarding censorship and racism after a photo
that some found offensive was removed from a Mills web site.

The photograph allegedly depicted Barak Perelman, a graduate
student in the Music Dept., wearing what some identified as a
Palestinian headscarf and holding musical instruments with his arms
outstretched. It was posted on Perelman’s biography page on Mills’
web site for Signal Flow, a music festival that featured the work
of graduate students in the Music Dept.

The administration received an e-mail complaining that the
photograph was racist and that it depicted “Arabs as hedonistic
terrorists and suicide bombers.” In a statement sent to the faculty
and student body, President Janet Holmgren stated that the photo
was removed at Perelman’s request and “to avoid further
reactions.”

A handful of students expressed confusion over Holmgren’s
statement, relaying a contradictory message they heard from other
students that suggested that the photograph was removed prior to
Perelman’s request.

However, Chris Brown, the chair of the Music Dept., sent an
e-mail to student news last week that supported Holmgren’s
statement and explained that he had removed the photo after
Perelman requested it.

Likewise, Hilda Hernandez-Gravelle, senior advisor to the
President for multiculturalism and student retention, said, “As far
as I understand, and I have no reason to believe otherwise, the
photo was removed on his request. Not prior to it but after.”

Perelman declined to comment on the issue.

“Mr. Perelman requested [the photo’s] removal himself, after
fearing for his reputation when [the original complaint e-mail] was
being circulated on student news,” said Alicia Byer, a sophomore.
“In his statement to student news, however, he did not make this
clear, did not sufficiently explain the photograph, and let other
male graduate students continue to defend him on the basis that he
had been censored.”

Some students argue that the photo delivers a racist
message.

“Perelman’s artwork needn’t be racist in intention,” said Joy
Liu a junior. “His artwork may very well be an unknowing expression
of racist ideologies; that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is
trivial. But, to not know that the kafia (scarf) is an
internationally recognized symbol of solidarity with Palestinian
struggle for self-determination is ignorant and unfortunately for
him, could easily be seen as deeply offensive, insensitive.”

In a post to student news, Perelman maintained that the
photograph was inspired by his experience with the homeless and
street performing in San Francisco.

“I had no political implications in mind,” said Perelman, on
student news. “I only had purely musical implications for this
musical work.”

Byer, who has been an active participant in the discussion on
student news, feels that Perelman’s actions were offensive,
regardless of his intentions.

“I do not pretend to understand Mr. Perelman’s motives for
including the photograph on the web site, but neither do I believe
his opinion that there was ‘nothing political’ about donning a
Palestinian scarf,” said Byer. “Whether or not he gave a second
thought to his actions is irrelevant to whether or not they were
disrespectful. Using a symbol from another’s culture for one’s own
benefit, especially in a pose that can easily be seen as
referencing stereotypes of the aggression of that culture, is
disrespectful and racist.”

A number of students have expressed their concerns regarding
Perelman’s previous behavior and what they view as a dominant
presence of male graduate students in the Music Dept. into the
discussion on student news.

“The masculinism existing in the music department must be
recognized as having created a hostile environment for the
undergraduate students of music, who are impacted on a daily basis
by their often negative experiences,” said Tina Zaman, a sophomore,
in a post to student news.

Others feel that bringing gender into the discussion distracts
from the main issue.

“It seems irresponsible to me that people are introducing the
problem of gender dynamics into this argument, which just confuses
the real issue,” said Marc Jensen, a graduate student in the Music
Dept. “The people who do this are completely missing the point, and
using this as a convenient forum to grind the axes of their
personal vendettas against Barak, who has an outspoken history of
offensive behavior at Mills.”

The administration does not have a specific policy for dealing
with artwork that community members find offensive. Instead,
Hernandez-Gravelle states that they “rely on being a
community.”

“We do not engage in censorship because any single thing could
be offensive to any single person in the community,” she said.


Politics of Artistic Expression was published on April 22, 2004 in News

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