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From: Len Gutkin
Subject: The Review: Fired for Teaching Art History
When, a couple of months ago, I likened the University of Michigan students who persecuted Phoebe Gloeckner for teaching comix they considered offensive to the 16th-century Calvinist iconoclasts who destroyed sacred paintings, I was risking hyperbole. Or at least so I thought. But a recent incident at Hamline University, in Minnesota, literalizes the analogy. In this case, the offending image, shown by a non-tenure-track instructor in a survey course on art history, dates from the Middle Ages and depicts, in the words of the University of Michigan art historian Christiane Gruber, the Prophet Muhammad “receiving his first Quranic revelation through the Angel Gabriel.” Invoking the conservative Islamic ban on representations of Muhammad, some Muslim students asserted that showing the image was Islamophobic; the university’s administration agreed (“respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom,” Hamline’s president wrote); the instructor’s contract was not renewed. Religious orthodoxy and sensitivities about diversity converged uncannily in the condemnatory language of David Everett, Hamline’s associate vice president for inclusive excellence. Showing the image, Everett said, was “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful, and Islamophobic.”
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When, a couple of months ago, I likened the University of Michigan students who persecuted Phoebe Gloeckner for teaching comix they considered offensive to the 16th-century Calvinist iconoclasts who destroyed sacred paintings, I was risking hyperbole. Or at least so I thought. But a recent incident at Hamline University, in Minnesota, literalizes the analogy. In this case, the offending image, shown by a non-tenure-track instructor in a survey course on art history, dates from the Middle Ages and depicts, in the words of the University of Michigan art historian Christiane Gruber, the Prophet Muhammad “receiving his first Quranic revelation through the Angel Gabriel.” Invoking a putative conservative Islamic ban on representations of Muhammad, some Muslim students asserted that showing the image was Islamophobic; the university’s administration agreed (“respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom,” Hamline’s president wrote); the instructor’s contract was not renewed. Religious orthodoxy and sensitivities about diversity converged uncannily in the condemnatory language of David Everett, Hamline’s associate vice president for inclusive excellence. Showing the image, Everett said, was “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful, and Islamophobic.”
Gruber, who broke the story in New Lines Magazine, observes that Hamline’s administrators have inhibited, at a fundamental level, the ability of art-history professors to do their jobs: “An instructor who showed an Islamic painting during a visual analysis — a basic exercise for art-history training — was publicly impugned for hate speech and dismissed thereafter, without access to due process.” Just as Gloeckner, who had been hired for her expertise in underground comix, discovered that her subject had become unteachable, anyone teaching global art-history survey courses will now think long and hard about including material from the Muslim world.
Imagine if a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose version of Christianity is strictly aniconic, protested against being asked to analyze Botticelli’s “Madonna and Child” in a class on European art because they considered the painting rank Mariolatry — and if administrators, under the sign of diversity, fired the teacher. To teach premodern art history is almost always also to teach the history of religion; Hamline has rendered both impossible.
In any event, as Gruber explains, the historical fact is that Islamic prohibitions on depictions of Muhammad have been highly variable, and there are sharp disagreements between clerics over whether an absolute ban exists. As the former Iranian cleric Hassan Yousefi Eshkavari told the BBC back in 2015: “From a religious point of view there is no prohibition on these pictures. These images exist in shops as well as houses. They aren’t seen as insulting, either from a religious or cultural viewpoint.”
In siding with the offended students, Hamline’s diversity administrators have not only trampled academic freedom; they have cluelessly taken sides in a theological debate about which they know nothing and over which they have no authority. In doing so, they have unwittingly affirmed a specific and highly reactionary position. As Gruber told me, “based on the fact that the only fatwa prohibiting images of Muhammad in Islam was issued by a Salafi cleric in Saudi Arabia in 2013, then it’s clear that Hamline has taken a latter-day, ultraconservative stance on the matter.” And as Amna Khalid puts it in our pages, by assuming that this ultraconservative stance is universally shared by Muslims, Hamline’s administrators “have flattened the rich history and diversity of Islamic thought.” Hamline’s caricatural view of Muslim thought and history, with its corollary assumption that Muslim students are uniquely in need of protection against the rational procedures of scholarship, is itself ironically Islamophobic, or at least orientalist.
The Hamline controversy has already garnered widespread condemnation — PEN America and FIRE have issued statements, Jonathan Zimmerman wrote an op-ed in the Daily News, and a petition calling for an investigation of the professor’s dismissal is circulating — so it seems reasonable to hope that the administration will realize its misstep and reverse course. But even if it does, the incident will remain revealing for how it exposes the quasi-religious element in the stern interdictions imposed on various kinds of words and images in academic life now.
Religion, for Émile Durkheim and others in his tradition, involves the division of things into segregated zones of the sacred and the profane. At Hamline, student activists and their allies in the administration have appointed themselves defenders of the sacred. More commonly, such groups pursue the condemnation of the profane. A recent, comical example: As Michael Powell reports in The New York Times, Britain’s Royal Astronomical Society has decided that NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope must never be named — instead, it asks “authors submitting scientific papers to its journals to use the JWST acronym rather than the full name of the observatory. In this case, the previous requirement for the acronym to be spelled out at first mention will not be observed.”
The reason? James Webb, who was NASA’s chief administrator leading up to the moon landing, had long been rumored to have participated in homophobic purges of various government agencies. Actually, as Powell reports, the evidence against Webb is largely mistaken, something the physicist Hakeem Oluseyi explained in a 2021 article called “Was NASA’s Historic Leader James Webb a Bigot?” (The answer: no.) Some challenged Oluseyi’s claims — and at least one person, Powell writes, went so far as to send anonymous text messages to Powell defaming Oluseyi.
Powell’s reporting, it seems to me, has decisively resolved the dispute in favor of Oluseyi. But the larger meaning of this incident is suggested not by the Twitter-driven hostility between warring academic factions — an old story — but by the Royal Astronomical Society’s prohibition on printing the very name “James Webb,” a bizarrely superstitious concession to word-magic for an organization of scientists. At least Hamline’s activists have behind them the authority of a clerical and jurisprudential tradition with deep roots! The scientists are just plucking new rules out of thin air, arbitrarily designating a new he-who-shall-not-be-named.
In other respects the situations are totally different. Suppressing Webb’s name in scientific publications is farcical, but it won’t impede the basic activity of science. Caving in to far-right theocratic orthodoxy would make it impossible to teach anything other than a bowdlerized version of Islamic art history. It also aligns the university, and not all that distantly, with rather more violent enforcers of the putative prohibition on the representation of Muhammad. That is tragic.
Read Christiane Gruber on the Hamline incident here, Hakeem Oluseyi on James Webb here, and Michael Powell on the controversy over Oluseyi’s work on Webb here. And for more on the question of bans on the image of Muhammad, check out Gruber’s article here. And don’t miss Amna Khalid’s “Most of All, I Am Offended as a Muslim,” here.
Discord Among the Psychologists: An Update.
Last month I wrote about a dispute between Klaus Fiedler, the (now former) editor of Perspectives on Psychological Science, and the Stanford psychologist Steven O. Roberts. The very short version: Roberts and several co-authors wrote an article alleging that psychological research suffered from racial bias; Fiedler organized a series of critical responses to that essay, including one by Bernhard Hommel; when Roberts drafted a response to his critics, Fiedler shared the draft with Hommel, whom he considered a “quality consultant.” Roberts, objecting to this and other aspects of Fiedler’s handling of the critiques, published his response on PsyArXiv, complete with a scathing preamble accusing Fiedler of editorial misconduct. (There’s much more to the story — for a more detailed account, check out Tom Bartlett’s coverage.)
Within days of a petition’s call for Fiedler’s firing, the board of the Association for Psychological Science, which publishes Perspectives, forced him to resign. My own sense that Fiedler had been denied any semblance of due process, and that the board had left itself open to charges of cowardice in the face of a moral panic, appears to be shared by the journal’s associate editors — all but one of whom, as Lee Jussim reports on his blog, have resigned. (You can confirm this by comparing the journal’s current website with an archived version from before the contretemps. Of the former associate editors, two told me that they had resigned in response to the controversy; a third said that she had resigned in order to leave a clean slate for the next chief editor.) As the Brown psychologist Joachim Krueger explained in a letter announcing his resignation from Perspectives’ editorial board, the association “has placed ideological mandates before science, and has thereby begun to throttle it. I do not know how you might recover from this. The public may come to see you as a gang of garden gnomes with axes to grind, axes too heavy for you to lift.”
Of course, some in the profession disagree. Linda J. Skitka, an emerita professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, suggested on Twitter that the board’s “prompt action” had been justified; my own coverage of the incident, she said, “misses/glosses over a huge part of what led the board to ask for Fiedler’s resignation: His highly irregular editorial conduct.” Moreover, “asking Hommel to serve as an ‘informant’ (let’s be real: it was as a reviewer) on Stevens [sic] reply was super weird and inappropriate.” Skitka may have been skimming, since in fact I wrote this: “Fiedler’s handling of the editorial process was high-handed and arrogant, and his giving Hommel something like review capacity over Roberts’s response was odd and potentially culpable.” In any event, until the association’s board submits its process to some kind of outside review, no impartial observer could consider Fiedler’s forced resignation kosher.
A 2022 Review Round-Up
It’s a new year — ring it in the right way by catching up on 12 of my favorite Review essays from 2022:
My Cartoonish Cancellation, by Phoebe Gloeckner
The Cruelty of Faculty Churn, by James Rushing Daniel
Academic Freedom Has Always Been Dirty, by Joan W. Scott
Colleges Must Stop Trying to Appease the Right, by Silke-Maria Weineck
How Affirmative Action Was Derailed by Diversity, by Richard Thompson Ford
When Did Racism Begin? by Vanita Seth
Our Students Don’t Need Identitarian Paternalism, by Blake Smith
When Students Harass Professors, by Alicia Andrzejewski
I Was a Diversity Hire — Then They Unhired Me, by Sheila Sundar
The Philosopher Queens, by Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman
Why Are Scholars Such Snitches? by Laura Kipnis
We Need a Less Moralistic Humanities, by Nicolas Langlitz
And, from outside The Chronicle, a baker’s dozen of essays and interviews from my weekly recommendations that have stayed with me:
The Metaphysician-in-Chief, by Jared Marcel Pollen (Liberties)
When Reason Fails, by Sam Kriss (The Point)
The Guggenheim’s Scapegoat, by Helen Lewis (The Atlantic)
Lucky Guy, by Joshua Cohen (The New York Review of Books)
The Shocks and Aftershocks of “The Waste Land,” by Anthony Lane (The New Yorker)
“I Want to Be the Baby,” by Kasia Boddy (London Review of Books)
The World as a Game, by Justin E.H. Smith (Liberties)
I, the People, by Lynn Hunt (The New York Review of Books)
Gross Clinic, by Amy Taubin (Artforum)
False Witnesses, by Phil Klay (The Point)
The Forgotten Movement to Reclaim Africa’s Stolen Art, by Julian Lucas (The New Yorker)
Invasion of the Fact-Checkers, by Jacob Siegel (Tablet)
Sandbagging in Odessa, by Elena Kostyuchenko (n+1)
- “Artists who couldn’t paint their way out of a paper bag are being exhibited cheek by jowl with refined stylists whose images evince a profound engagement with contemporary reality.” In The Nation, Barry Schwabsky on what’s good and what’s bad in the vogue for figurative painting.
- For his podcast “Close Readings,” Kamran Javadizadeh talks with Langdon Hammer about James Merrill’s poem “Christmas Tree.”
- “Tattoos traditionally enacted a range of cultural work both through the chosen iconography and the act of tattooing, which took ritualized form in both religious and secular ceremonies.” In Lapham’s Quarterly, Mairin Odle on what European painters made of Native American tattoos.
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