Sanitization and Self-Censorship in the Arts

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A board consisting of educators from UVU’s arts programs held a panel discussing self-sanitation in the arts September 27 as part of UVU’s Ethics Awareness Week. The focus of this panel was self-imposed restrictions.

“Are there themes or content that are avoided in the arts because of the fear of offending or creating backlash?” Courtney Davis, moderator and assistant professor of art history, asked the crowd. “Can the effort to avoid difficult topics cause a misunderstanding, and how does this relate to ethical decision-making?”After Davis turned the discussion over to the panelists, she asked if they have noticed a shift to sanitize in order not to offend anyone.

John Rees, assistant professor of photography, said he’s noticed that clearly in the use of trigger warnings.

“My concern with this … is that it presumes an extraordinary fragility within the students’ minds,”Reese said. Nichole Ortega, a dance professor, said that while she still had misgivings about censoring her lessons, she feels that the community is making strides.

“I think students [and faculty] are feeling more comfortable expressing their art,” Ortega said. She recalled a dance piece she choreographed a few years ago that depicted a gay couple. The performance spurred a beautiful and meaningful conversation among the dance majors. Ortega admitted that ten years ago, that might not have ever occurred. Davis prompted to the panel to think of times that they’ve seen a positive shift in the conversation, where perhaps censoring had a hand in sparking a more open discussion.

Chris Clark, chair of the theatre department, immediately recalled a show that the department produced three years ago titled “Next to Normal” which is a Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, and has contentabout medication, mental illness, and depression. The department strongly felt that the community needed to experience this show, but were hesitant. They knew that many wouldn’t attend because of the language it contained. The staff appealed to the rights-holders, who worked with them to create a new script.

“That is self-censorship,” Clark said. “Their reasoning was that it was an important story, the community needed to hear it, and if this would help them come, [they would] do it.”Rees expressed concerns over this issue, especially as it pertains to teaching. “We are responsible for the context of the content we’re delivering. … If we’re so fearful of any issue of offending anyone, then the delivery of the content becomes so watered down that there’s really no content to be had. This [school] of all places ought to be the place where you can have conversation without fear of having [it],” Rees said.

Davis echoed these thoughts. “Even though something is difficult and it’s challenging [that] doesn’t mean we should ignore it. It means we should think about finding ways of talking about it respectfully and opening up.”