On 1 May I wrote an article arguing that Max Price, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, should leave his post.
He has now written this reply, which I am posting below.
Your blog has just been brought to my attention and I feel I must reply as it attributes views to me which I do not hold. Your brief summary of our discussion has misrepresented my position.
I do NOT believe that students have a right not to be offended. Yes, I supported the removal of the Rhodes statue as did the overwhelming majority of campus staff and an almost unanimous Senate. The reasons have nothing to do with causing offence to particular individuals. Hence I would not support the removal of the Rhodes statue from the Company Gardens or from Rhodes Memorial above UCT campus. The reasons have everything to do with what a statue of Rhodes represents and says about the University of Cape Town when presented in an iconic way in pride of place with connotations of a hero that embodies the values of the university and someone the students should look up to.
I reject your view that the Rhodes statue decision inevitably leads to an expectation amongst protestors that any objection to a name, statue or artwork must similarly result in its removal. Many US campuses have removed statues and symbols (e.g. University of Texas, Austin, Harvard Law School rejecting its crest and its slave owning founder), after questioning the veneration of these individuals as symbols of the university’s values, particularly when being challenged to make the institution more inclusive. These institutions too, do not avoid such actions out of fear that this will lead to wholesale removal of other works that might offend.
Your claim that “Max has presided over an administration which has allowed a small group of student activists to believe they have a right to intimidate lecturers, burn works of art and vandalise the campus” is contradicted by the fact that all students who have been identified as having participated in the burning of artworks or vandalism, or in intimidating individuals, are being subjected to disciplinary processes. Nine cases have been heard – we are awaiting the judgements and if found guilty the University will seek their expulsion; three more will be heard in the coming weeks.
To clarify what I said about causing offence, I do believe we need to be concerned about and listen to those who say they take offence at an artwork or the cumulative effects of a display of works. That does not mean I concede a right not to be offended. But an artwork that is racist will cause offence that I don’t think we should tolerate – at least not in public spaces where the public cannot avoid seeing it and where it cannot be contextualised, balanced, moderated or be part of an educational process – as one might be able to do in a gallery. Some artwork may not be racist when understood in context, with knowledge of the intention of the artist or of the context in which it was created, but to the passer-by and out of context, may be seen as racist. As curators of these works, we have a duty to ensure that those works are made sense of in ways that make clear we are not endorsing or reproducing racist or other discriminatory stereotypes and attitudes.
Regarding the withdrawal of some art works at UCT, I have emphasised elsewhere that the artworks have been taken down temporarily for two reasons. First, we have a duty of care to ensure the paintings are not damaged. Recent actions of a small group of protestors who were trying to make a point by resorting to vandalism indicates that we cannot leave controversial artworks unprotected at the present moment.
Secondly, this gives us time to develop a policy not to censor what art should be displayed, but to guide how it should be displayed – a policy on curation, which might include decisions to display some works in galleries rather than in public places. In curating works of art, context, history, accumulated impact, balance are all important.
Our goal is that after a process of discussion and education, policy development and re-curation, we will create an environment which is vibrant, challenging, provocative, but also inclusive, and an audience that feels respected and is also more informed, understanding and tolerant. I believe that all the art will once again be on display.