“Meeting Under a Black Moon on the Plains of Despair.” (Courtesy of Garry D. Harley )
Opinion writer

Add them to the annals of No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: works of art calling attention to racism in America’s past — and its persistence in America’s present — targeted by educational censorship campaigns for being too racist.

Four such works were challenged in the past month, in fact.

This fall, Salem State University put out an open call for an exhibition titled “State of the Union.” Artists were asked to submit work that “addresses concerns and hopes for our future,” such as “environmental issues, social inequities, income inequality and education.”

Garry Harley, an artist in nearby Lowell, Mass., saw the notice and knew immediately what to submit: two digital paintings, both inspired by campaign rhetoric he found frightening. One was based on a photo of Ku Klux Klan members in full, menacing regalia; the other, Warsaw Jews being rounded up during World War II.

Both were accepted.

“They Came for My Brother & I Turned Away - Then They Came for Me on a Sunny Day in October.” (Courtesy of Garry D. Harley)

The exhibition opened the day after Election Day. And when it did, Harley’s work — in particular the KKK picture — caused an uproar. Students complained that the art was insensitive, racist, upsetting, offensive. 

The school held a tense public forum. Harley, who says he wanted to raise awareness but not offense, attended in the hopes of a “teaching moment.” He arrived with handouts: copies of Francisco Goya’s “The Third of May 1808” and Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” masterpieces that had committed traumatic events to canvas and, by extension, to public memory.

The next day, administrators sent an apology to the campus community and announced they were temporarily shuttering the exhibit. Then last week, after a second meeting, which Harley did not attend, the exhibit was reopened — with some modifications.

Among them: The KKK painting, and only that work, was curtained off, peep-show-style. This way “the viewing will be clearly intentional on the part of the observer,” according to a statement from President Patricia Maguire Meservey. 

In a phone interview, Meservey explained this was a compromise designed to keep the work on display while helping students prepare themselves to view distressing imagery.

Harley, for his part, called it an “elegant solution.” It grants the students “another layer of security,” he told me. Plus, he said, it has “added interest to the work.”

Indeed, the school says this exhibition has attracted much more traffic than previous ones; everyone wants to see what’s behind the curtain, it seems.

Garry Harley's artwork depicting Ku Klux Klan members is now shielded by a black curtain at Salem State University's “State of the Union" art exhibit. (Courtesy of Salem State University)

Down the Eastern Seaboard, two older works addressing American bigotry found themselves in similar crosshairs.

Last month, Accomack County, Va., public schools temporarily pulled “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from classrooms and libraries because a parent complained about the racial slurs they contain. After a local uproar and a formal review, the novels were reinstated Tuesday.

Meanwhile, South Carolina’s Winthrop University is threatening to expel a student who created a “deeply hurtful and threatening” anti-lynching art installation.

These are hardly the only recent instances of anti-racist works being targeted by anti-racists for being insufficiently anti-racist.

“Mockingbird” and “Huck Finn” are frequently challenged. More recent works, lacking the protection afforded by generations of fans, are more vulnerable. Last year, students in an Alabama high school history club were forbidden from seeing the film “Selma” because of its use of slurs.

To be clear, calls for censorship are hardly unique to the left. But real threats to the safety and rights of people of color do seem to have led to heightened policing of the “correct way” to condemn bigotry and tell more diverse stories, says Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. 

Works depicting historical events are often the casualties. The problem, alas, is that history is inevitably laden with upsetting details. Needless to say, such details are precisely why we must face our own history and protect the art that helps us process it.

Believe it or not, there are ways to prepare impressionable students for such challenges that don’t involve sanitizing art, curtaining off its more difficult aspects or otherwise signaling that it might be dangerous and worth avoiding. 

Coincidentally, the Maryland Institute College of Art has a gallery show opening Friday that also features Klan-related imagery: an exhibition of work by the late chronicler of rural poverty and racism William A. Christenberry. It includes the rarely shown “Klan Room Tableau,” a multimedia piece featuring KKK iconography and G.I. Joe dolls in white robes. 

Aware of the nature of the installation, instructors had students set it up themselves. In a workshop setting, students handled the objects and discussed their artistic and historical context. 

It was, in a way, a sort of cleverly preemptive exposure therapy — to art, to history and to the frightening lessons both have to offer.