Originally from New Orleans, Hay explained that the piece was a response to her Southern Baptist upbringing: “I was born and raised in a fundamentalist religious family in the South…I wanted to make a statement about the Christian religion and the inhibitions (to put it nicely) on women’s rights and bodies that come from religion.” Hay envisioned the piece as part of a feminist push back against a tradition that is “negative towards women.”
She discovered some of the details of the piece’s removal following an email exchange with her professor, Susan Lloyd, for whose class she had originally produced the work. “[Lloyd] was upset by this censorship. She asked if I would be willing to talk to the admin about it,” Hay explained, and added that she was appreciative of Lloyd’s support. Since then, action on the part of the administration appears to have stalled, and Hay has been left in the dark about further developments. Precise details of what happened remain unavailable. “I don’t fully know if it was pulled down during the show or after,” she states by way of clarification.
While Hay was pleased that her photograph was so controversial, noting, “part of me was flattered that I was censored,” she was also surprised by the complaint. “Toronto is very tolerant and progressive,” she explained, and her piece was not the only possibly controversial artwork at the show.
Hay found the University’s response to be the most concerning aspect of the incident. “The removal was ad hoc. I thought there would be some discussion, or policy discussion about it,” Hay said. She added that she was unaware of university policies on either the removal of art pieces or the appropriate response to requests to remove them. Hay is not aware of any other cases at the University of Toronto where a student art piece has been removed in this way, and still has not heard of any policies in place to respond to this sort of incident.
“This shouldn’t happen,” Hay said, explaining that such a policy of casual censorship could set a harmful precedent for promoting artistic expression. “When you are training people to be artists they learn to do critique and make provocative stuff.” Censorship is diametrically opposed to these values, she said. She added that while there ought to be a policy, if it were to allow censorship, the burden of justification ought to be on the people wishing to censor the work. “Things that are provocative ought to be discussed. This is part of the learning system,” she said. “It’s one thing to find a piece of artwork offensive, and another to ask it be taken down from the wall.”
Hay appears glad to have had the opportunity to spark discussion on the treatment of women in religion and on censorship of artwork. However, Hay admitted, “I would love to know who it was” who took down her art piece, and why.
Following the publication of this article, Professor Lisa Steele of the Fine Arts Department sent an email to the newspaper that shed some more light on the matter of the Bible Belt’s removal.
Steele sent us a copy of an email exchange she had with Ian Carson, the property manager of 1 Spadina Crescent, where the Eyeball exhibit took place.
Steele noted that all of the works in the Eyeball show had been subject to “thorough "vetting"…before [being] put up for exhibition,” and added that a major element of student projects was an in-class critique that included discussion “intellectual and ethical issues that might arise” with various art works they had created.
Regarding the removal of the photograph, Steele explained that after the show, she found it in her office with a note saying, “this art is very offensive and I was asked to have it removed,” written by one of the maintenance staff at the building. When he was contacted, he said that Carson, the building manager, had told him to remove the piece.
However, in an email to Steele, Carson denied having asked anyone to take down the photograph. He wrote that he “kn[e]w it had been taken down and instructed the worker to place it in [Steele’s] office for safe keeping.”
Steele was disappointed that the photograph was put away, writing that, “The removal of the image effectively stops dialogue and shuts down discourse.” She also said that in the future she hoped to be notified by staff before student artwork is taken down, so that this can be dealt with in a fashion “appropriate within a University setting where freedom of speech and academic freedom are core values.”