Salem State University (SSU) has shut down an election-themed art exhibit after several pieces critical of President-elect Donald Trump offended minorities.
In an unconventional bid to help students cope with 2016’s tumultuous election, SSU administrators contacted Garry Harley and commissioned several pieces for an art exhibit titled “State of the Union.”
Harley contributed two paintings to the exhibit. In one work, he has an image of six Ku Klux Klan members standing in an empty field in full Klan regalia. In another, he copied imagery from a photo of Nazi soldiers rounding up Polish Jews during the Holocaust.
Harley is anything but a Trump supporter, and says he wanted his pieces to be a provocative take on the danger Trump may pose to the American republic. Instead, his pieces, in particular the KKK painting, angered minority groups at Salem State and the wider community, who claimed they were triggering and offensive.
“This is disgusting and white professors and students need to shut their privileged mouths and listen!” one person complained online.
“The anger of the students sort of overwhelmed [what I wanted to say],” Harley told Inside Higher Ed.
Student outrage caused Salem State to hold a forum on the paintings last week, which Harley personally attended. He tried to explain the intent of his paintings, comparing them to works by great artists such as Pablo Picasso and Francisco Goya, but says he was able to get nowhere.
“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.
In the end, Salem State decided it wasn’t worth defending Harley’s art for art’s sake. Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, the school suspended the exhibition entirely, while apologizing for the “distress” students had suffered from viewing it. In Harley’s telling, school officials “weren’t prepared” to stand up for free speech in the face of a student uprising.
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