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What she didn’t expect was that, just a few days after the exhibition opened on January 27, Macalester’s administration would “pause” — their word — the show in deference to the demands of student protesters. On February 3, Lisa Anderson-Levy, executive vice president and provost, and Alina Wong, vice president for institutional equity, sent an email explaining the situation. “We write today,” they began, “with respect, compassion, and responsibility.” In practice, that responsibility meant that when “Muslim students in our community thoughtfully expressed their reactions to the exhibit,” the administration temporarily closed it down. They also installed blackout curtains over the gallery’s glass windows so that no one might look inside. “The pause,” they wrote, “provides space for members of our community who expressed pain caused by pieces in the exhibition, and makes space for conversation and consideration of the multiple perspectives and experiences of Muslim communities on campus and their interactions with the exhibition.”
Anderson-Levy and Wong promised to reopen the gallery on Monday, February 6, and they have been true to their word. Some changes have been made: A sign affixed to the entrance warns that “the exhibition … contains images of sexuality and violence that may be upsetting or unacceptable for some visitors”; new frosted-glass panels on the second floor largely obscure the previously available view down into the first. This might seem like a win for both academic and artistic freedom. Students protested; the administration listened but did not acquiesce. True, the protesting students may not always have been as “thoughtful” as the administrators suggested — Talepasand told me that one reason she was given by gallery director Heather Everhart for the “pause,” which went into effect without her knowledge, is that protestors were absconding with all of the exhibition catalogs and making student gallery workers feel unsafe — but all things considered, this was a good outcome. (Neither Everhart, Anderson-Levy nor Wong was made available to talk with me.)
The case is striking, though, for how neatly it encapsulates the increasing integration on campuses of two traditions apparently at odds: religious conservatism and the DEI imperatives of inclusion and harm reduction, especially around visual and verbal representations. That alliance is not entirely novel — the legal feminist Catharine A. MacKinnon’s collaboration in the 1980s with conservative Christian politicians on antipornography legislation comes to mind. But that partnership didn’t get far, in part because of its essentially incompatible ideological ingredients. The language of diversity, equity, and inclusion, conversely, has proven remarkably adaptable to a wide range of groups. For the foreseeable future, protests like the one against Talepasand’s irreligious art are here to stay. How did we get here?
A student petition condemning the show objects specifically to these images. “The hijab is a symbol of god [sic] and faith to billions of Muslims everywhere.” Moreover, “the decision to display and continue to display this exhibition despite the harm it perpetuates is a deeply problematic issue. It is targeting and harming an already small community that exists on this campus.” Elsewhere, a student lamented “the objectification, fetishization and overt sexualization of hijabi women,” which has supposedly “contributed to the rise of sexual assault against Muslim women. It is DISGUSTING, DEGRADING, AND DEHUMANIZING.” And on Talepasand’s Instagram page, a student lectured her this way: “The students at Macalester gathered to have a conversation about the hurt and harm your work has caused … Rather than taking a step back, being in conversation with the community about your work and addressing your own potential bias[,] you decided to go onto Instagram and cry about being ‘silenced.’ … That was fucking immature of you … Disrespectfully, grow the fuck up.”
This protest rhetoric is a curious hybrid. There is the therapeutic language of care and harm; conservative respect for the symbols of the sacred; militant expressions of feminist critique; outpourings of moral revulsion; and confrontational personal attacks — sometimes all in the same paragraph.
A similarly weird amalgam of arguments characterized protests at Hamline University, 10 minutes or so from Macalester, over the display of a medieval devotional image of the prophet Muhammad in an art history class — which Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, has called “blasphemous.” A petition on CAIR-MN’s website declares that “displaying images of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH [Peace Be Upon Him]) is not okay, especially in all settings including academia.” That’s a theological claim. But elsewhere in the petition, the language of DEI is invoked to defend the Hamline administration’s (since retracted) condemnation of the professor who showed the image: “Hamline University has chosen to prioritize the safety and inclusiveness of its students and community. This decision is part of ongoing efforts to challenge the legacy of institutional racism on college campuses.”
The merger of diversity rhetoric and religious conservatism is not a uniquely Muslim phenomenon. An early and prominent instance occurred at Duke University in 2015, when incoming freshmen were asked to read Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home before arriving on campus. One student, a Christian named Brian Grasso, wrote a Washington Post op-ed explaining that “Jesus forbids his followers from exposing themselves to anything pornographic,” and that Fun Home was therefore forbidden him. In Grasso’s comments to a Duke student paper, the argument from religious prohibition coalesced with the logic of diversity and inclusion. “Duke did not seem to have people like me in mind,” he told the paper. “It was like Duke didn’t know we existed.” That sense of marginalization is shared by the Muslim protestors at Macalester who feel that, as their petition puts it, Talepasand’s show “is targeting and harming an already small community that exists on this campus.”
But laws against religious offense and discourses around sensitivity and diversity came to occupy a common frame in an incident that remains highly relevant — the protests over Salman Rushdie’s allegedly blasphemous depiction of the prophet Muhammad in his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. In England, which had old laws prohibiting blasphemy against the Church of England still on the books, religious officials of all faiths, along with many members of the government, were highly sympathetic to the protests against Rushdie. Immanuel Jakobovitz, England’s chief rabbi, put it this way: “We should generate respect for other people’s religious beliefs and not tolerate a form of denigration and ridicule which can only breed resentment.” Many supported expanding the blasphemy laws to protect groups beyond Anglicans from the emotional pain of religious insult. The sociologist Tariq Modood wrote that “the group which feels hurt is the ultimate arbiter of whether a hurt has taken place.”
Offenses against religion have become, in pluralistic societies with secular governments, offenses against groups of people, understood in many cases, if not all, to be minorities. Even in the majority-Christian United States, Grasso construed his religious objections to Fun Home in terms of his felt minority status. How much more plausible, then, for the significantly Somali Muslim student populations of lily-white Minnesota (83 percent white and about three-quarters Christian) to see anticlericalism like Talepasand’s as an offense against diversity?
DEI administrators have formalized and institutionalized the language of hurt feelings and minority dignity still nascent at the time of the Rushdie affair. At Hamline, the primary respondent, besides the school’s president, was the vice president for inclusive excellence, who confidently explained that a 14th-century devotional image of Muhammad was “undeniably ... Islamophobic.” At Macalester, similarly, the letter announcing and explaining the “pause” of the Talepasand retrospective came from a provost and a vice president for institutional equity. Offenses against religion are now officially in the hands not of university chaplains, and certainly not professors of religion, art history, literature, or other relevant fields — after all, they have no decision-making power — but of administrators without religious training or expertise.
Religious students who feel sensitive to anticlerical speech like Talepasand’s must thus convert their religious identity into an ethnic or racial one, which is more readily recognized by administrators. That can produce awkward impasses when the offender is also a minority. “Am I not dark enough? I know what marginalization feels like, being the only brown person in Beaverton, Oregon, in the early ‘80s,” as Talepasand said to me. When all sides claim to speak from a position of marginalization, what is an administrator to do?
If I could go back in time, would I remove these works from the exhibition? No. But I would hope that the institution would be more equipped, be more prepared, have some kind of protocol for all of this.
A decade before that, the American artist Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” a photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in a jar of the artist’s own urine, had provoked a comparable scandal. Like Ofili, Serrano intended a devotional work. The photograph is eerie and beautiful. But its materials, and its title, determined much of the response. When the photograph won a National Endowment for the Arts award, conservative senators in the U.S. attacked the NEA. Serrano received death threats. The work was controversial abroad, too. An Australian Catholic archbishop tried to prevent its being shown at the National Gallery of Victoria. In 2011, while on display at a museum in Avignon, France, the photograph was irreparably destroyed “by a pair of angry Christians wielding hammers,” as Tori Campbell wrote in Artland. It is still sometimes shown. Like the early-modern religious paintings defaced by Puritan iconoclasts, it bears wounded witness to the intensities of religious conviction.
These days, the art world goes largely ignored by religious conservatives. Scandals over museum shows are more likely to be triggered by protests from the left; at issue is not religious offense but offense over questions of race and representation. Religious conservatives remain concerned about the arts, but their focus is on popular culture and entertainment. Most recently, Sam Smith’s kitschy performance at the 2023 Grammy Awards — he dressed up as a devil while performing a song called “Unholy” — inspired a bevy of outraged responses. Ted Cruz called it “evil.” Megyn Kelly thought it “satanic.” The British magazine Premier Christianity was moved to ask, “Why do pop stars suddenly think blasphemy is acceptable?”
By contrast, the student protests against Talepasand’s work are, stylistically and rhetorically at least, identifiably left. “STAND WITH US IN SOLIDARITY,” proclaim the posters protestors have pasted outside of the exhibit. “Help us protest the objectification and fetishization of Hijabi Muslim Women.” To those who see a contradiction here, this is a religious argument in left-feminist garb. That’s certainly how Talepasand herself sees it. “This is what you would call fundamentalist Islam,” she told me.
Be that as it may, the administrators to whom protesting religious students appeal do not speak the language of blasphemy. Their campuswide emails are not religious edicts; theology is not their business. They convert whatever inputs they get into one kind of output: the therapeutic argot of DEI. A February 6 letter from Anderson-Levy and Wong following up on their earlier announcement that Talepasand’s show had been paused gives the drift: “We recognize and support the value of artistic expression, including provocative art used in protest and social activism. Therefore, we will provide access to those who wish to view the exhibition. We also recognize community impact and understand that pieces in the exhibition have caused harm to members of our Muslim community.”
If you’re primed to be concerned about the future of artistic freedom at Macalester, though, the paragraph that follows might seem more ominous:
The purpose of the Law Warschaw gallery is to provide opportunities for learning, student and community engagement, and access to professional presentation of fine art. The new gallery director and curator has been developing a communications and community engagement plan, and will work with the Art and Art History department and seek community input to fine tune this document. In the coming weeks, the plan will be shared with the Macalester campus community. This plan will be a living document, designed to center the gallery’s work in empathy. As we create exhibitions and programs across global topics and identities, we will strive to provide transparency around the future exhibition schedule, and to be in contact with students, faculty, and staff as mentioned above.
The “new gallery director” is Heather Everhart, who was in place by the time Talepasand’s show went up, but not when it was first commissioned. I would have liked to ask her more about what “the gallery’s work in empathy” might entail, but she wouldn’t return my calls. Would it make room for a show like Talepasand’s in the future? It’s reasonable to think that incidents like this might deter college art galleries from hosting potentially controversial work — even discourage artists from making such works. I asked Talepasand if, knowing how much controversy her “Blasphemy” pieces would stir up, she would have kept them out of the show. “If I could go back in time, would I remove these works from the exhibition? No. But I would hope that the institution would be more equipped, be more prepared, have some kind of protocol for all of this. The energy feels really dark.”