Harsh Criticism | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Harsh Criticism 

Their public installation trampled and torn by junior lawyers, u. of C. art students take it all down.

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By Ben Joravsky

Something strange is apparently happening to the young scholars at the University of Chicago's law school, though no one in charge seems to care.

It has to do with art, specifically the seeming inability of some law school students to view art exhibitions without messing with the works. The latest incident occurred a few weeks ago, when an exhibition of graduate student art was yanked from the law school's main hallway because several pieces had been damaged.

This was the second time in two years that works on display had been tampered with. So far, law school officials have offered no explanation or apology, much less any compensation to the artists whose works were damaged. It's enough to make people wonder why any artist would attend a school so hostile to art.

"I don't want to personalize the issue, but we're very disappointed by the reaction of the law school to this," says Nicole Been, a graduate student of art. "They haven't even issued an official apology. It's like they're pretending it didn't happen, like they're sweeping it all under a rug."

Ironically, this year's show was sponsored by law school dean Douglas Baird to foster camaraderie between art and law school students. The two graduate schools are a few blocks apart, but they might as well be on opposite sides of the universe, so vast are the differences between them. The law school is an enormous institution--hundreds of students housed in an anonymous building of concrete and glass. The graduate art students (all 16 of them) work out of Midway Studios, a bright and airy old house once owned by sculptor Lorado Taft.

"When we graduate we get a master's degree in fine arts, which, as you can imagine, is of limited practicality," says Mike Dreeben, a student sculptor. "After this you can become a college or high school art teacher and continue as a practicing artist. I'm not complaining. This is what we choose to do."

Most of the artists looked forward to the law school exhibition. Baird, who calls himself a connoisseur of the arts, assured them that this show would be better than last year's, which was marred when part of one work, a series of vinyl signs, was torn off a wall. Baird hired two graduate students in art history, Lisa Meyerowitz and Liz Siegel, to curate this year's program. The works were labeled with statements by the artists and carefully arranged in the school's main first-floor hallway.

The exhibition, scheduled to run until March 21, opened February 20 with a reception attended by at least 150 students. The atmosphere was friendly, and the exhibit's comment book filled with appreciative words. "A break from dry, lifeless case law," one typical comment went.

But the occasional caustic comment also was entered in the book, such as "Bring back the dead white guys!" and "You have not seen anything yet"--a disturbing prophecy of what was to come.

Clearly the art--not to mention the artists' somewhat pretentious statements--was angering some viewers. "We also started getting some pranksters," says Siegel. "Someone put 25 to 30 plastic toy Indians and cowboys into Jung Rhee Shim's work, which was 12 delicately arranged boxes made of Korean paper and hung by fish line. The toys got tangled in the fish line. It didn't damage the work, but it was very invasive."

A few days later someone calling himself Samuel Lisman placed a crushed bag of Twinkies near the exhibition along with a satirical statement about "post-industrial universe industrialism" rising "over cuisine-fed palettes to a fetid, fecal end."

The artists took this in good spirits. Two of them, Kurt Andernach and Zena Sakowski, even stored the Twinkies in a plastic box, as if to officially welcome the bag to the show. "I have no problem with the negative comments or the Twinkies. If you put your work on display you're opening yourself to mockery," says Mark Clarson, an artist on display. "But there's a line between mockery and mutilation."

Soon that line was crossed. Someone broke Dreeben's sculpture Ham Machine, a solar system in which hanging pigs circle a giant ham like planets circling the sun. "It has a hand crank to make the solar system go around," says Dreeben. "I had posted a sign that said turn gently, but someone turned it so fast that the rods broke. To me it shows a lack of respect as much as maliciousness."

After that the damage piled up. The resin sheet running the length of Noelle DeLage's Viewing Shelter, a box made of natural materials, was found dangling. The artist suspected foul play. Someone trampled squares of wax that hang from Andernach's sculpture and rest on the floor. After two other reports of damage, all 16 artists asked the curators to convey their outrage to Baird. They hoped for a forceful response--a call for free expression, a vow not to be intimidated, a pledge to see the show through to the end of its run, even if this meant paying for security guards out of the law students' happy hour funds. Alas, Baird issued no calls, vows, or pledges. He agreed only to post a guard for ten days (he said there was no money for a longer stay). With the guard present, the damage stopped. After the guard left on March 7, the art students took down their work. "We didn't want our work to be damaged," says Been. "We had no guarantee it would be safe."

So far reaction has been mixed. Some law students apologized. "I am ashamed at my peers' behavior, and I'm sorry for their utter lack of respect," one student wrote in the comment book.

Others remained defiant. "Because of the pretentiousness of some of the pieces, and especially their placards, I think the vandalism a more appreciable work of art than some of the works in the revue."

One student wrote that without proof of malice, the artists should "cease their indignant overreaction." Several others told the campus newspaper that the damage was accidental--as if the law students, minds immersed in law, were incapable of traversing the hallways without crashing into the art.

Some of the artists wonder if they were innocent victims of the law school's painful struggle for identity. For years it harbored conservative professors (now judges) such as Richard Posner, Frank Easterbrook, and Antonin Scalia; the faculty now includes several younger liberals, and the school might even hire radical feminist Catharine MacKinnon. These changes irritate the Federalist Society, a group of the school's most conservative students. As one society member recently told the Wall Street Journal: "If everyone over 40 on the faculty died in a plane crash, would we be happy with the remaining professors? No one in our group would say yes."

According to one theory, the conservative students felt the exhibition invaded their sanctuary, much as MacKinnon's appointment would. "I guess they just couldn't control themselves," says Mark Weinberg, a law school graduate. "This was just their way of saying 'Oh, no, not in our house.' Hey, it's more convincing than that line about them accidentally stumbling over the stuff."

Whoever's responsible for the damage, what's confounding is the relative indifference to it displayed by campus authorities. After all, the school is home to a legion of free-market and private property advocates. In their silence are they saying that young artists have no private property rights? Or that criminal transgressions should be overlooked if the perpetrators might be conservative lawyers-to-be? Or is it that they don't really believe what they say?

One must wonder how Justice Scalia, Judge Posner, or law school grad Robert Bork would react if, say, a black kid from Woodlawn were caught spray-painting graffiti on campus property. "Scalia and Bork would lecture the kid on being accountable for his actions," says Weinberg. "Posner would talk about the economic ramifications of the decreasing sureness of punishment. That is, we promote crime when we don't send offenders to jail because there's less incentive against it. Either way, the kid's looking at 12 to 18 months without parole."

(In fairness to the law school, it's not the only building in which student artwork was destroyed; two pieces were damaged last year while displayed at the biological sciences building. "There's a growing feeling on the part of artists that no place is safe here to display their work," says Siegel.)

University officials took a much tougher approach after a portrait of former president Hanna Gray was stolen last year from a campus building. Campus and Chicago police were immediately called upon to investigate. "Putting together all their ridiculous little clues they came to the absurd conclusion that somehow or other I was involved," says Scott Marshall, an art graduate student. "One Sunday morning at about ten, two cops came knocking at my door. They said, 'Why did you do it? Where's the painting? Who did it with you?' I couldn't believe it. I kept telling them, 'I didn't take it.' I mean, why in the world would I want to steal a painting?"

The Hanna Gray painting was discovered a few weeks later, but campus police insist their search for the thief will never cease. Mark Clarson can't contain a rueful smile when he considers the contrast between then and now. "They really sent out the cavalry for Hanna," he says. "But for us, nothing. I guess we're learning our place in this world." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): U. of C. art students photo by Randy Tunnel.

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