A former Brigham Young University religion professor believes administrators at the school would remain steadfast in a decision to ban certain Rodin statues from an art exhibit if the chance was presented again.
"If they had the decision to do over, they'd do the same thing," said Steven Epperson, who also worked as curator of the Museum of Church History and Art. "For them it was just a public relations packaging problem."Epperson told students attending an ethics seminar at Utah Valley State College that a reasonable compromise would have been to sequester the four so-called "offensive" statues in a part of the museum where only adults would be allowed to enter.
"It's not as if the university doesn't allow people to see them. It's just that they let certain people see them," he said, noting that photographs are in most, if not all, art textbooks studied by university students. "The standard they created was to treat adults like children."
Epperson said museums that showed photographs by controversial artist Robert Mapplethorpe roped off an adults-only section for some controversial homoerotic shots. The tactical move prohibited children from viewing the graphic art but allowed adults the option of seeing the entire exhibit, he said.
President Merrill J. Bateman came under fire last year after he issued an order to exclude four Auguste Rodin statues from a 40-plus piece exhibit at the Museum of Art. The exhibit was on loan from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation.
Bateman, with input from advisers and the curator, decided the pieces were not appropriate to be shown on campus and did not fit the exhibit's theme, which highlighted "The Hands of Rodin."
Four pieces were excluded: "The Kiss," "Saint John the Baptist Preaching," "The Prodigal Son" and "Monument to Balzac."
Epperson, a program coordinator for the Utah Humanities Council and professor of philosophy and ethics at Salt Lake Community College, said censorship usually occurs when those in leadership positions believe a new form of expression will, in some way, usurp power or upset the traditional social structure.
He does, however, think museums have the right to choose what type of subject matter is included in their pieces. Curators constantly are sifting through works to determine which works will be showcased on the showroom floor.
Many times, the editing process is seen by artists as censorship, he said.
But when an artistic voice is squelched by a government or organization powered by a moral majority, an act of censorship often backfires. Outcries against an artist as "an elitist or one attempting to destroy traditional values" creates a public stir that ironically popularizes a censured work, he said.
Witness Salmon Rushdie. Ayatollah Khomeni's death threat against the author made headlines and propelled "The Islamic Verses" to the bestseller list, pushing the information Islamic leaders didn't want shared with the world farther out into the public's eye.
"A temptation to censorship will not go away as long as there is power," Epperson said. "I hope that this alternative model of democracy and decency and the freedom of the individual lives on in the long run."