Misunderstood in Manitowoc | Letters | Chicago Reader

Misunderstood in Manitowoc 

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To the editors:

Greetings from the hinterlands of Wisconsin!

Just recently a copy of the Chicago Reader, dated May 22, crossed my desk. Some friends from Chicago wanted to make certain we had read the article, "Artists at Home," about John Shimon and Julie Lindemann since they are again living in our collective backyard.

John and Julie are known to many of us here at the University of Wisconsin Center-Manitowoc County through our art instructor and through the works which they have displayed here on campus. It was good to read of their accomplishments and continuing work.

Nevertheless, I must say that I was a little taken aback when I read their remarks about John's painting exhibit here on campus a couple of years ago. While it may be appropriate to refer to Manitowoc as a "conservative town" and while that may fit the metropolitan stereotype of a smaller Wisconsin town, their cheap shot was extremely disconcerting. If anything, they should have lauded the "Manitowoc branch of the University of Wisconsin" for its actions relative to his exhibit. Indeed, "self-appointed guardians of the public morality" did not "rip their work from the walls" as was indicated. The principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression were maintained here, in fact, just as they would have been at a "university in a larger city." Perhaps they have forgotten some of the details in this matter in their desire to impress your readers with their efforts to be guardians of the fine arts in this (by their standards perhaps) "culturally desolate area."

John's exhibit had been on display for nearly three weeks of its scheduled four-week run when it was apparently discovered by some members of the community. To be sure, there had been a running discussion on campus about the exhibit from the very beginning with some supporters and some detractors. That seems to be a very healthy situation on a university campus. As the campus dean, I received a number of comments from some, who would have liked the exhibit removed, and from some, who were anxious to see it defended. I must say that the exhibit was not extremely graphic and appeared more as a series of caricatures rather than "some nudes," as they were described in your article. Never, during this period, however, was there a "demonstration by a Christian students' group" against the exhibit. For one thing, no such formal group exists on this campus and, for another, there was never a "demonstration" of any sort with regard to this exhibit.

One fateful morning, after the paintings had been on display for approximately three weeks, the local chief of police did come to the campus and demanded that the display be taken down. As is commonly done when questions of academic freedom are raised, I chatted with university legal counsel about the "request" and was assured that I need not comply. The state attorney general's staff also had conversations with the local DA who communicated with me on the subject. He too assured me that there was clearly no violation of obscenity codes here and that no action was being taken by local authorities on this matter. Thus, principles triumphed over local passions and the exhibit remained in our gallery until it was scheduled for removal. This hardly seems like the sort of sequence of events described in your article.

The cause of freedom can only be set back by such irresponsible treatment of facts. Controversy is common on this and, I strongly suspect, most university campuses. Disagreement and discussion are healthy and should be encouraged if we are to truly find "truth." I am personally disappointed by the depiction of Manitowoc and the University of Wisconsin Center-Manitowoc County as a hotbed of intolerance by John and Julie. They have done us all an injustice. They even missed the point that graduation prayers at the public high school have not been given for two years. Maybe John and Julie are not yet sure themselves how conservative Manitowoc really is (or isn't). Perhaps they ought to remove the whitewash from the storefront windows so that they can see things a little more clearly. At any rate, I offer this in the spirit of accuracy and fairness.

Roland A. Baldwin

Campus Dean

University of Wisconsin Center

Manitowoc County

Jeffrey Felshman replies:

I'm sorry that the paragraph in question was taken as a snipe at the University of Wisconsin at Manitowoc. It wasn't my intention to degrade the school, or the town for that matter.

My own misinterpretation of events led me to a factual inaccuracy: according to an article in the Shepherd Express, "Christian factions" circulated a petition against the show, but no formal demonstration by a group was held. I apologize for the error. Perhaps this is what led Mr. Baldwin to believe that I'd called Manitowoc a "culturally desolate area," when in fact that phrase appears nowhere in the article and is actually counter to its intent. Prayer was practiced in the schools of Manitowoc three years ago, when John and Julie moved there, and this was stated in the article. The reference to a "university in a larger city" was not a snide remark from a condescending urbanite, it was a reference to the removal of a painting from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago.

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