Freedom Sinking in Wyoming…

November 2nd, 2012

I’m a professor at the University of Wyoming, and usually proud of that.  We have a quality program for a very reasonable price, and generally enjoy the academic freedoms and freedom of expression that faculty everywhere require to best pursue their goals.  The whole concept of tenure was designed so that academics could pursue research and topics that they thought were interesting and important without being vetoed by their universities (e.g. political reasons or other censorship).

I’ve just become aware of a case here at Wyoming that makes me feel troubled.  It’s not quite so clear cut in some respects, but it is in others.

The State Legislature passed a law recently requiring that public art on campus be approved by the Governor and the School of Energy Resources.  This is in response to a piece of art that displayed briefly on campus last spring called “Carbon Sink,” which featured dead trees killed by bark beetle, spiralling in toward a pile of coal.  The original intention of the artist was to leave it there indefinitely until it was reclaimed by nature, but our University President suggested its early removal after getting complaints from donors associated with the coal industry.  Wyoming ranks number one in coal production in the country, in case you didn’t know, and state revenues depend heavily on taxes imposed on mineral extraction.

Burning coal, even so-called “clean coal,” produces a lot of CO2 compared to many other fossil fuels.  Coal is a major contributor to climate change.  It’s been warmer temperatures that have permitted the spread of the bark beetle into Wyoming.  Huge swaths of forest around us here in Laramie have been devastated in recent years by the bark beetle.  I used to see veins of gold through the hills during fall…and that’s gone now.  I may never see those forests that way again (the evergreens are not affected, just the trees with leaves).  Those are facts.

It’s also a fact that we’re not going to do without coal any time soon.

I’m not just a scientist.  I’m an artist, too, and could have ended up an illustrator or painter if I’d made a few different decisions.  Art is not just a set of skills, but a way of looking at things.  There’s no point to just reproducing an image.  True art is about showing people a different way of seeing something, of sparking ideas and discussion, of making people feel something.  Freedom of artistic expression is, to an artist, every bit as important as the freedom to pursue any avenue of research, to a scientist, and for many of the same reasons.

So, there are no University of Wyoming faculty or students being told what works of art they can or cannot create.  There is however state censorship of what works can be publicly displayed on campus, which is veering close enough that it annoys me.  And the censorship is clearly politically motivated by some of the same forces that already lie and sow misinformation about the science in support of climate change, so I like it even less.

Imagine, if you will, 20 years ago the University of South Carolina or North Carolina State, taking down a campus sculpture of a spiral of dead bodies around a pile of cigarettes, at the behest of tobacco industry donors.  And moreover, giving a pro-tobacco argo-research board veto power over all public art on campus thereafter.  Crazy, isn’t it?

Good art should make you think.  It should be disturbing at times.  It should have truths, both apparent and hidden, to be discovered by the viewer.  Those disturbed by those truths shouldn’t be able to silence the artist.  Silencing the artist doesn’t change the truth.  It just makes you look like an authoritarian who prioritizes money over the things that a university are supposed to be about: education and research striving to reveal truths about our world.

And of course there’s the blatant fact, call it an irony or hypocrisy as your preference, that those who want freedom from government regulations and smaller, less restrictive government in general, are exploiting their government power to stomp on artistic freedom at the only four-year university in the entire state.  It’s a bit shameful, in my opinion.  I want my university to be better than that.  Our students deserve better.



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