Students from Michael Wilson’s Visual Culture class painted the walls of Art Studio 101 for an art project that they were assigned on May 24. The studio art department is now charging these students with vandalism.
Wilson’s Visual Culture class studies the role of images and its progression in art history and culture, covering the period from 1975 to the present.
The assignment required the students to form groups in order to deal with the way attitudes shift at the intersection of the individual and the collective. The theme, content and media, were left to students to choose.
The students decided to paint a mural focusing on political issues,such as the war in Iraq. These issues fit in with the class because it has been focusing on conceptualism, performance and media activism and the way artists use non-traditional modes of expression in response to political and cultural events.
As part of the project, the students were going to repaint the room and put it back into its original state by the end of the week.
After the art department discovered the students’ project, they ordered the students not to repaint the walls and had maintenance workers come in to repaint the walls and clean the room.
The art department is charging the students with vandalism of property and they are facing the possibilities of expulsion and suspension. They will also have to pay the cost of the repainting, estimated at $2,000 to $3,000.
Stephanie Ha, a first-year studio art major and one of the students who participated in painting the mural, is upset with the art department’s decision to charge them with vandalism.
‘The constant question in visual culture classes is ‘What is art?’ and we were pushing the boundaries of ‘What is art?’ in our piece. It’s as if the administration is answering that question, saying that they know what art is and that this isn’t art, it’s graffiti,’ Ha said.
Mike McKeehan, fourth-year studio art major and another student involved in the project explains their intentions.
‘The intention wasn’t to vandalize the school, it was to make it a work of art,’ McKeehan said. ‘We had the paint ready to repaint the walls, but they basically just halted us in our steps.’
Colleen Grigg, art administration assistant, and Christina Christensen, art department manager, have been in correspondence with the students on this matter. Both declined to comment.
However, in an e-mail to McKeehan, Christensen explained it was not the subject of the art, but the manner in which it was expressed that caused problems.
‘The intent of the project has validity; however, the method utilized was not appropriate and constitutes vandalism which could result in suspension or expulsion,’ Christensen wrote.
Rob Ameele, assistant dean of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, agrees that the art department was not concerned with the content of the project but the damage it did to the facility. He also explained that there was paint on the walls and on light fixtures that could not be easily repaired with a simple coat of paint.
‘I don’t think the students had any malicious intent at all and that they were planning on repainting the wall, but I think they misjudged how easy that might be and so we stepped in to get the repairs done to make sure it was done adequately,’ Ameele said.
Wilson believes the students in his class should have been allowed to repaint the wall.
‘The issue really boils down to misplaced priorities and an insulting dismissal of student ability: the students were judged to be incapable of returning the walls to an adequate state of whiteness and the sanctity of the institutional space was valued above the interests and voices of the students,’ Wilson said.
The students do not want Wilson to be held responsible for their actions and are ready to take full responsibility for what they have done, but the overall sentiment is of anger and disappointment.
‘Instead of engaging the students’ sentiments regarding the constant parade of bloody media imagery and the catastrophic effects of the current war, the administration seems to have chosen to treat the work as property defacement. It’s a surprise and a disappointment,’ Wilson said.
Ha also expressed her disappointment in the school’s policy. ‘It makes me question the mission statement of this art school and what kind of art they want to breed because if they’re going to do this, how they nurturing are artists?’ she said.
Leroy Pasis, first-year studio art major and a student in the course, felt the art school let the students down with their course of action.
‘I’m just disappointed with the fact that they made us feel like they didn’t really care about our work in the aftermath,’ Pasis said.
The art department has now turned the case over to the dean of students and all the parties involved will be questioned, including the members of the art administration, the students in the class and their teacher.
Byron Clift Breland, director of student judicial affairs and assistant dean of students explains that this case is new and must be further investigated.
‘At this point in time, our office is in the process of investigating whether in fact a violation has occurred. No determination has been made even to a specific course of action. Right now, it is still a pending matter,’ Breland said.