PHIL 251
Offensive Art Spring 2020
Division II
Cross-listed THEA 251 / PHIL 251

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Twenty-four centuries ago Plato argued for censorship of art. In the last century New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani attempted to shut down the Brooklyn Museum “Sensations” exhibit because he claimed it offended Christians, and the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center was prosecuted for exhibiting allegedly obscene photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. Just recently, the magazine The Nation apologized for publishing Anders Carlson-Wee’s poem adopting the voice of a homeless person, writing “We are sorry for the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem.” At Williams College a mural in The Log was temporarily boarded over, Herman Rosse’s painting “Carnival of Life” was removed from the ’62 Center, and the Theater department cancelled the production of Aleshea Harris’ Beast Thing. What should be done about offensive art? What is offensive art? Does it matter who is offended? Does offensive art harm? Is there a difference between being offended and being harmed? Is there a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation? What are the responsibilities of museum curators and theater producers when presenting art that might offend? Who gets to decide the answer to these questions; indeed, who gets to decide what questions to ask? We will attempt answers by studying classical works (such as Plato’s Republic and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty), contemporary articles, and works of art in various media. Trigger Warning: all the works of art studied in this class will be chosen partly because they have offended a significant number of people. You are very likely to be offended by some of the art we discuss. This will be the only trigger warning for the class; if you don’t want to be offended then this course is not for you. This course is part of the John Hyde Teaching Fellowship.
The Class: Type: Seminar
Limit: 25
Expected: 17
Class#: 3984
Grading: yes pass/fail option, yes fifth course option
Requirements/Evaluation: several short responses (including op-eds on current controversies) and longer final projects (a 12- to 15-page paper or equivalent work in other media)
Prerequisites: none
Enrollment Preferences: seniors, juniors, then sophomores in that order
Materials/Lab Fee: potential additional material costs if individual students opt for final projects in other media
Distributions: Division II
Notes: This course is cross-listed and the prefixes carry the following divisional credit:
THEA 251 Division I PHIL 251 Division II
Attributes: PHIL Contemporary Value Theory Courses

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