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Washburn's bust of a statue

By Terry Graves
web posted March 1, 2004

Yet another conflict billed by the partisans as art and freedom versus religion and reaction is rearing its ugly head. Literally. The head in question is ugly, and by intention. Briefly, Washburn University, a small public school in Topeka, Kansas is displaying in front of its Memorial Union building a bronze bust entitled Holier Than Thou. Atop the bust, where one expects to see a hat, is something variously described as a miter that resembles a phallus, a phallus that resembles a miter, a miter that resembles a miter, or a phallus that resembles a phallus.

A miter is the ceremonial hat worn by Roman Catholic bishops, cardinals, and popes when in full regalia. Its design, nearly a thousand years old, is straightforward. Jovian Lang, O.F.M., in his The Dictionary of the Liturgy, describes the miter this way: "The front and back are stiff, shaped like inverted shields ending in a peak which [sic] are pressed apart when the miter is on the head. These two pieces are sewn together at the lower part, but a cleft separates them on the top…" The result is open at the top and somewhat resembles a carnivorous plant with maw agape, not unlike the half-grown Audrey in The Little Shop of Horrors. So it is not surprising that the phrase bishop's miter has been used to describe cacti, herbs, and other plants, as well as folded napkins, handbags, and a valve in the human heart.

Holier Than ThouBy contrast, consider Holier Than Thou, the bronze bust on display at Washburn. On loan from its sculptor, Jerry Boyle, the 38-inch bust is of a middle-aged man wearing an expression of wary disgust. Perhaps the subject knew what he is a wearing. That which is on his head is taller than a miter; the view of its rear and sides and back is less Audrey than Rio's Sugar Loaf, without a trace of the deep cleft that characterizes a miter. From the front, the hat, or whatever, most resembles a tall chef's hat surmounted by a German Army helmet.

From the forehead down, Holier Than Thou is grimly representational, even graphic, so it is appropriate to wonder what real object Mr. Boyle was trying to grimly represent by the upper part of his creation. For starters, it bears more than a passing dissimilarity to the other miter-like objects, from cactus to heart valve, and were it not for its placement (and scale), most adults would have no trouble identifying it. Nor would most students, either, if it were, say, a snow sculpture in front of a frat house. (There is an old joke about an elderly couple touring a museum. The woman is puzzled by one objet d'art; her husband explains, "It's a phallic symbol used in primitive fertility rites." She shakes her head but says, "Well, okay, but I'd hate to say what it looks like.")

Still, many professed to be puzzled by the Washburn bust. For example, the editor of the University's WU Online, Mary Hammel, wrote "I believe people can make a penis out of anything they want"; nevertheless, "I personally did not think the sculpture looked like a phallic symbol until someone said it." (It seems that a bishop is only one of the things Ms. Hammel has never seen in full regalia.) She continued, "The same goes for about 95 percent of the people I have talked to. They have walked by it hundreds of times on the way to class, and could not believe people saw that when they looked at it. To them it was just a sculpture that was on campus."

Again: one Stanley D. Davis "… did not see the sexual reference as being quite so clear." Mr. Davis also "…noted that it was both Catholics and non-Catholics on the Campus Beautification Committee that [sic] decided which pieces of art would be included in the …Exhibit…" and the Committee's "… members did not see the sexual reference, nor had the intent of making a religious statement." Of course, Mr. Davis is the attorney representing Washburn in this controversy, and the Committee members are representing themselves, so these expressions of doubt about any sexual reference may not be so naïve as they might appear. According to a story in WU Online, Mr. Davis cited "…a different clause in the First Amendment to defend the statue's presence -- the Free Expression clause. He pointed out that there were only an "offended few" and that censorship control does not lay with these offended few." The story did not spell out Mr. Davis's views on just how many need be offended before "censorship control" would lay with them.

So just what did Mr. Boyle intend the bust to represent? The late Anthony Burgess wrote a novel, M/F, about incest. Asked what the title meant, Burgess replied, "It means what you think it means." About Holier Than Thou, Mr. Boyle is just as coy and far more confusing. In an article about the controversy over the bust at Washburn, the Denver Post's religion writer explained that, "Like many artists… Boyle is vague when discussing the meaning of his work, saying he prefers that people reach their own conclusions." The Post continued, "Boyle declined Thursday to say whether he meant the hat as a phallic symbol.

"He said the artwork is neither malicious nor anti-Catholic, but he would not go into detail about what he was trying to accomplish when he sculpted it.

"‘What I generally tell people is, I create the piece and you fill in the blanks,' said Boyle, 53. ‘You create the meaning. Generally, if I tell people exactly what I had in mind, it takes some of the power out of the piece.'"

Mr. Boyle was only slightly more specific with the Associated Press, where he was quoted as saying his work was meant as a "humorous piece." The AP also reported that "…he was glad his sculpture of a Catholic clergyman has sparked a public debate but was surprised at a federal lawsuit seeking its removal from the Washburn University campus." (More about that federal suit in a moment.) Mr. Boyle added, the AP reported, "What I tell people is I create the piece, and you create the meaning. It's individual, and people get out of it what they want."

"‘With art, everybody has their [sic] own interpretation,' he said." Mr. Boyle seems to telling us, You may not know much about art, but you know what you like.

Jean Bertleson, who chaired the Washburn beautification committee that chose Holier Than Thou, quoted Mr. Boyle as saying he was reared "…Catholic and is a devout Catholic to this day. He said he was very surprised about the controversy and that a number of priests and other clerics have seen the piece and none found it offensive or demeaning." She also said "…it was not the intent of the artist and not the intent of the Campus Beautification Committee to cause pain and hurt or demean religion." Another Washburn staffer said after talking with the sculptor that "… Mr. Boyle had not meant anything disrespectful, it is only how he felt the first time he went to confession." Since Mr. Boyle brought it up, it is fair to ask: if he did not intend the bust now at Washburn to be disrespectful, why did he call it Holier Than Thou? That he intended it sincerely, to mean the grumpy-looking bishop truly is holier than thou, would tax the credulity of even Mr. Davis or Ms. Bertleson.

Some, such as a cartoon in issue 14 of WU Online, would contrast Holier Than Thou with the pedophilia scandal within the Roman Catholic Church and, possibly, treat it as a horrified reaction to the scandal. (Like the bust itself, the cartoon is a visual creation and therefore just as full of blanks to fill in.) This is plausible, but Mr. Boyle created the bust more than a dozen years ago, when the scandal was being most aggressively covered by conservative Catholic newspapers like The Wanderer. But the sculptor seems to have closer ties to the opposite wing of the Church, as another of his works, Sadako, commissioned by the Loretto Disarmament/Economic Conversion committee, sadly commemorates the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In any case, the contrast is not apt, as it is likely the traditional Catholics outraged by Holier Than Thou are downright furious at the pedophiles.

As it happens, affixed to the base of Holier Than Thou is a large placard that purports to explain its sculptor's intent. It reads:

Holier Than Thou
by Jerry Boyle

The artist says: "I was brought up Catholic. I remember being 7 and going into the dark confessional booth for the first time. I knelt down, and my face was only inches from the thin screen that separated me and the one who had the power to condemn me for my evil ways. I was scared to death, for on the other side of that screen was the persona you see before you."

This is quite remarkable. For one thing, if the "persona" appeared to the seven-year-old Jerry Boyle like the phallic bust Holier Than Thou, then the little boy and his "evil ways" were as precocious as the young woman editor of the student newspaper is, well, not. Yet many Catholics would say that the precocious little boy held, and the adult he grew into holds, a view of the sacrament of confession, now more properly called reconciliation, that is more appropriate to a child, and one not the least precocious, at that. Whether this is so is, however, an intramural disagreement among some Catholics and not germane to consideration of Holier Than Thou, a work of art that is, remember, not intended to "demean religion."

What is not an intramural disagreement is the lawsuit mentioned earlier. To the surprise of no one except Mr. Boyle and the committee that selected for display at Washburn his Holier Than Thou, there are those in the Washburn University community and Topeka who are outraged by the bust as insult to the sacrament, priests, and Catholicism, and want it removed. Most of those outraged are (like me) Catholics, though many other Catholics prefer that Holier remains at Wabash – one, identified only as "Joan L," went so far as to affirm that "…she was not offended nor disenfranchised by the work. She does not believe it is disrespectful but rather, it serves as a catalyst for discussion and an opportunity to increase understanding of different religions, beliefs and cultures. She stated Topeka needed such an opportunity when confronted with the hatred which is evident on the streets daily." I quote Joan L. at length to give the full depth of her insight and, more importantly, to guard against accusations that I quoted her out of context.

Most of those who supported the display contented themselves with more or less agreeing with Washburn's official statement: "The sculpture was not selected nor placed to make a political statement but rather as a work of the creative arts. We regret that some have taken offense, but universities must continue to be venues for the free exchange of ideas." Despite its use of the royal we, Washburn biology professor Thomas O'Connor and student Andrew Strobl were not swayed by the official statement and have filed suit in federal district court, saying, according to www.dailycamera.com, that Holier Than Thou"‘…mocks their deeply held religious beliefs and ‘conveys the impermissible, state-sponsored message of disapproval of Catholicism.'

"They also argue that the display of the statue sends a ‘clear message' that they are "outsiders" of the school community. Such a message, O'Connor and Strobl argue, impinges upon their First Amendment right to be free from state-sponsored hostility to their religion."

Meanwhile, dailycamera.com (which describes Holier Than Thou as "vaguely phallic") continues, Mr. Boyle "… argues that the lawsuit threatens his right to free speech. At the same time, he's been happy about the controversy. Apparently, it's better to live in infamy than die in obscurity.

"You have to wonder if either side of this dispute actually believes all of its rhetoric. Does a university professor truly think his campus is constitutionally forbidden from temporarily displaying art that mocks his beliefs? Does our local artist really fear that flimsy lawsuits threaten his right to create according to his conscience?"

These comments by dailycamera are perceptive – while many of the remarks quoted above seem naïve, if not clueless (if we could actually tax credulity, we could balance the Federal budget), those who could be expected to have something to say, do not. Washburn University hides behind vapid officialese and lawyers; the sculptor attempts to confuse us with different, conflicting motivations; and the plaintiffs in the lawsuit have chosen the least convincing and most annoying grounds for their suit. The lawsuit so far is unsuccessful; even if the plaintiffs prevail, Holier Than Thou, scheduled to leave next July, will be long gone by the time they do, and all the parties will move on. The dustup over the bust likely will not harm Mr. Boyle's career. In repeating a standard argument against opposing immorality, that it serves only to draw attention, presumed to be favorable, to it, dailycamera.com says, "An artist could hardly ask for better marketing." True enough: schools and institutions of a certain bent all over North America will vie for the privilege of displaying it next, and the controversy just may have put Mr. Boyle on the short list for a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant and a spot in next year's Super Bowl halftime show. Washburn University has gained invaluable publicity, and while the parents of would-be students might not approve of the bust, they will be reassured by the fact that the students already there cannot recognize a phallus.

Despite the shrewdness of dailycamera.com's comments and the seeming futility of the whole business, there remain substantive points of interest. Moral issues cannot be equated with marketing tactics (when they are, this becomes a moral issue in and of itself). To begin on an ironic note: for something that Washburn, its Beautification Committee, and other supporters of Holier Than Thou believed would be a work of the creative arts, a venue for the free exchange of ideas, and a catalyst for discussion, an opportunity to increase understanding of different religions, beliefs and cultures, and so on and on – the bust has been a bust. If the editor of the student newspaper is to be believed, until the protests began, Holier Than Thou was "just a sculpture that was on campus." Several issues of WU Online have since featured the controversy over the bust, and it editorially supported its retention at Washburn. (But even months into the controversy, that student newspaper found no one on campus who thought the bust to be his favorite statue, and its poll of over 400 students were six to one in favor of removing it. "We take a different route around campus [when giving tours to prospective students]. We don't take students by the statue," said Brian Miller, offensive coordinator. "It's embarrassing." (Despite the word "offensive" in Mr. Miller's title, he is a member of the coaching staff of Washburn's football team, not of its Beautification Committee.)

So much for any impact the bust might have had as beautification, let alone art! Ditto for the free exchange of ideas – the sculptor freely exchanges ideas about his motivation from one occasion to the next; defenders of Holier Than Thou concentrate on its creator's untrammeled right of expression and totally ignore what he expressed; and most of its detractors whine as if instead in the Roman Church they were in the Roman Coliseum, their bones being gnawed on by feelings of rejection.

Almost as ironic is that Washburn University, like most other colleges, has a code of conduct for students that frowns on "lewd or obscene conduct or behavior," and a separate one for faculty, based on Kansas and federal law, which warns against "lewd and lascivious behavior." (That the code faculty also mentions "criminal sodomy" and "adultery" may give a clue just how seriously the code is taken.) Washburn also has a policy about sexual harassment that proscribes "… verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature…" that creates "…an intimidating, hostile, or offensive education [sic] environment." It is entirely possible that not everyone in the Washburn community finds Holier Than Thou so "humorous" as Mr. Boyle says (in one place) he intended; some might instead find it intimidating, hostile, or offensive. Think again about a similar snow sculpture erected, so to speak, by frat boys. Would Washburn dismiss objections to it so readily? Even one of Washburn's regents thought Holier Than Thou violated its own EEO policy (and the Constitution).

Washburn University is a public-supported school, and while private donations (tax-deductible, one supposes) are paying for the Holier Than Thou display, the bust is prominently placed in a public area of publicly-owned property. So the right to free expression is not the issue; a tax-supported venue for it is. It would be difficult for someone chancing upon the bust not to believe that the University in some sense approved of it. And of course it did, in the form of its Beautification Committee, and does, as its Board of Regents has voted to let the bust remain. At one of the open meetings of Washburn's Board of Regents where Holier Than Thou was discussed, Mr. Ostrowski, a lawyer and member of the audience, (as reported by the minutes) put it succinctly: "…there is [sic] sound constitutional grounds to remove the statue, stating 508 U.S. 520, a United States Supreme Court case, stands for the principle that government may not be hostile to religion. He said the institution is on shaky grounds having it. He said ‘it is your setting, not the same as a theatre, where one may choose not to go.' He said this is not art in an art museum; that you have a captive audience who have to walk by it and there are students and professors who have to be there."

Mr. Ostrowski wasted his time and breath, as neither the Regents nor anyone else so much as acknowledged his precious 508 U.S. 520. In any case, there is no use in our getting bogged down in constitutional-with-a-little-c questions, because by now we permit our judges to tend to such trivia and numbly accept what our betters from up yonder in the manor house tell us. Furthermore, if public money could not be used to support anything controversial, then it would support nothing, for everything is controversial to somebody in this litigious nation. If all you have are civil rights, then everything you don't like looks like a civil wrong.

But I suspect that much of the apparent rage of the detractors masks an exasperation that so far received too little attention. One of Washburn's regents did wonder out loud "…how would we ever condone art with swastikas and the like." But it was again Mr. Ostrowski who framed the question directly: "… when the issue first arose, he was wondering what the debate was all about… were the statue mocking Native Americans, mocking Jews or anti-Semitic they wouldn't be having this debate at all… He said the statement has been made that art is intended to engage us intellectually and emotionally. He said if this were some other sector, ‘I don't think this kind of statement would be made.'" Precisely. I think Mr. Ostrowski was implying that while Native Americans and Jews are among those Washburn would never permit to be insulted, Roman Catholics are among those for whom it is always open season at the University, even if the ammunition used might violate its own codes of conduct. Those who are suing Washburn for the removal of Holier Than Thou doubtless realize this better than we, if only because they and their faith are squarely in Washburn's sights. They might have tolerated (or never noticed) the bust were it one of several controversial (and opposing) works of art in Mr. Ostrowski's hypothetical museum. But it is not and for the foreseeable future in this country never will be.

Among the standard defenses of Holier Than Thou and other controversial works is that they serve as a basis for discussion. After all, if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a statue, with half again the number of dimensions, must be worth 1500. (Then, as somebody once said, it took words to say that.) For example, one of those among those who quoted its President Farley as saying, "Washburn University is a place of high standards for excellence – where inquiry, reflection, thoughtful curiosity and testing of ideas is appreciated." President Farley or one of the other defenders of Holier Than Thou might explain how it can be the catalyst for discussion and a common ground for the free exchange of ideas, when everybody has "their" own interpretation and is free to fill in "their" own blanks. You like to-may-to, I like to-mah-to, you like miter, I like phallus. Let's call the whole thing off.

"Testing of ideas." Imagine that submitted for possible display at Washburn is a bronze of the Prophet Mohammed, festooned with sticks of dynamite, entitled Seventy Virgins Await. About this new bust, Washburn's lawyer would not say he does not see the explosive reference; he would not try to explain away the dynamite sticks as phalluses; and the Board of Regents would never have to overrule its Beautification Committee and forbid display of Seventy Virgins Await. Why? The Committee would never for an instant have considered such a work. Furthermore, it is hard to imagine that someone who presents himself as an "artist," and is accepted as such by other American artists and the National Endowment for the Arts, would produce such a work, or anything else that might offend protected groups. (However, it would do well to consider whether something produced by someone accepted, and funded, as an artist necessarily is art or is worthy of any attention whatsoever.)

This mindset, prejudice if you will, is what those suing Washburn are really fighting, and they are armed with only negative evidence. That is, while retaining Holier Than Thou has Washburn recently removed a work demeaning, say, Native Americans? Of course not; such work does not exist. Given that, how could the litigants demonstrate this prejudice? And what relief would they request in their brief to the Federal judge? To insult Mohammed? Janet Jackson? As good Catholics, they should eschew such retribution.

The grimly representational Holier Than Thou is somewhat clever and somewhat vicious, but only slightly deceptive, much like its sculptor's various explanations of his motivation in creating it. Holier Than Thou is certainly no Guernica, but its intent, too, is propaganda, or, more properly, agitation. This is fine: art need not be purely artistic, however defined. More specifically, Mr. Boyle intended that it offend traditional Catholics like me and hearten others. So what? I must not be a good Catholic: I much prefer being offended to being prohibited from offending. But, as the regent and Mr. Ostrowsky remind us, Washburn prohibits offending only certain groups. So, instead of suing Washburn over what it permitted, for next year's Washburn art display the litigants should commission some art school dropout to create a blandly representational Seventy Virgins Await, submit it to the Beautification Committee, and wait for it to commit what we know it will commit: reject the submission. Then sue.

Let the games begin.

This is Terry Graves' first contribution to Enter Stage Right. © 2004 Terry Graves. All rights reserved

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