Expression is Freedom

| May 05, 2011
Sculpture by Tess Dalhgren - PHOTO BY DEREK LACTAOEN
  • Photo by Derek Lactaoen
  • Sculpture by Tess Dalhgren

Ppppppppppppeeeeeeeeeeeennnnnnniiiiiissssssssssssssss. Offended? Or did you just say to yourself: "Wow, that's one really long penis that Marcy started her column with"? I felt compelled to do that in the hope that someone will rip this page off and tape it to the wall of the greenhouse at Humboldt State. Better yet, pick up a copy of last week's Lumberjack newspaper, rip out page 4 and tape that to the wall of the HSU greenhouse. You can get a copy on campus in the Lumberjack office in Gist Hall.

Last month art students at Humboldt installed throughout the campus sculptures they created over the past year. Tess Dahlgren created a sculpture she installed in the campus greenhouse that Lumberjack reporter Derek Lactaoen described this way: "The naked orange thighs stuck out of the large flower pot like they were organic. The buttock curved into the hips where the body ended; in place of skin were the ripples and ridges of a pumpkin. Instead of a penis, there was a 15-foot-long green vine that wrapped around the sculpture's leg and down the flower pot."

It turns out that the sculpture offended the building coordinator of the greenhouse. He ordered it removed.

Wait. Maybe I should redo the beginning of this column. After all, I do know that 12-year-old Ciara Cheli-Colando reads it. She wrote a letter to the Journal two years ago after I told KHSU it was time to pull the plug on Garrison Keillor. But then again, if she or any other young person old enough to read a newspaper doesn't know what a penis is, well folks, its time to sit down with your children and discuss male and female anatomy. While discussing this column over our dinner table, my 6-year-old daughter warned me that I should not use the word penis. I asked her why. Doesn't every boy have one?

The 2010 U.S. Census counted 156,533,988 males in this country and that is a lot of penises. Now Dahlgren sculpted a penis unusually long (the average non-erect size according to netdoctor.com is 3.75 inches) but that's what art is all about. From the photo in the Lumberjack, I can see that she was trying to say something about the connection between people and plants. Her penis is more plantlike than phallic.

If we are going to start pulling phallic art from public spaces let's start with the Washington Monument. Meanwhile, you can't walk into a museum without bumping into a nude sculpture. There is rarely a fuss made over female nudes, although in 2002 then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft spent $8,000 of taxpayer money for blue drapes to cover two giant Art Deco sculptures in the Great Hall of the Justice Department in Washington. He was embarrassed to be photographed in front of naked boobs. I was embarrassed to have him as my attorney general. Meanwhile, Michaelango's statue of David, one of the most beautiful statues in the world, displays the biblical king in all his biblical splendor.

I could go on about our problems with the penis but this column is about art and censorship. Humboldt State should be a campus that celebrates rather than censors art. After all, art is one of the most popular majors on campus, second only to biology. And that's not including the students who major in theater, film, dance or music, all of them artists, too.

Of all places in the county, Humboldt State should be the place of freest expression. Universities are places to exchange and consider different ways of thinking. We have a whole category of general education classes at HSU we call "Ways of Thinking" classes, and you can't graduate without taking at least one.

HSU allows building coordinators to approve or disapprove art displays, and there are 60 different building coordinators. What kind of a policy on art is that at a university? Here's how the policy should read: "The artist will tell the building coordinator the size and shape of the art installation and explain how the art will be installed, and the building coordinator will determine if the size or positioning will obstruct traffic or in any other way pose a physical danger to the people who use the building."

What the art represents, what it looks like, or what a person might think when they look at it should have nothing to do with the building coordinator's decision. True art always offends somebody. People found Monet's paintings offensive when they first came out.

Suppression of expression at HSU drives me insane. The school has the most convoluted First Amendment policy. You can't thumbtack a flier to a bulletin board without first getting it stamped at the University Center. You can't chalk on the sidewalk without getting a permit. You can't give a speech using a bullhorn without a permit and only at lunchtime and only on the university quad. The restrictions make me want to thumbtack onto a bulletin board an unpermitted notice that I will scream out obscenities into a bullhorn in front of the Art Building at 3 p.m. as I stand on a chalk drawing of a snake-like penis.

Last week I walked across the pedestrian bridge that connects HSU to G Street in Arcata. Someone had spray-painted these words on the paved walkway: "Expression is Freedom." The person who painted those words risked jail time and a $1,000 fine.

Dahlgren worked on her art piece for months before she felt it was good enough for public display. After its removal she told the Lumberjack: "I was upset because of the fact that I could put so much time and energy into it and someone could be like, ‘I don't like it' and take it down. Art is made for people to talk about issues. To silence it is like silencing a minority. No one's going to see it and talk about it so why make it in the first place?"

Tess, you are wrong. To silence art is to silence us all. 

Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State.She congratulates her current and former students on the Lumberjack newspaper. Last month it took second place for general excellence at the California Newspaper Publishers Association Better Newspapers Contest and Third Place for Best All-Around Non-Daily Student Newspaper at the Society of Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence multi-state competition. 

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Comments (17)

Showing 1-17 of 17

In the spirit of supporting our art students and the First Amendment of the US Constitution, HSU First Street Gallery will proudly display Tess Dahlgren's sculpture through May 15th. Come and decide for yourself. Jack Bentley Director, HSU First Street Gallery

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Posted by Jack Bentley on 05/05/2011 at 3:42 PM

Well done daughter! The more you study the piece you see the quality of it. Years ago I created Rock posters for Kalaiedoscope in Hollywood...and they caused comment but not like your piece.

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Posted by Dick Dahlgren on 05/05/2011 at 9:09 PM

Humboldt U. a place of free expression… As long as you stay away from any thing to do with Christianity or Republicans

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Posted by trueman on 05/06/2011 at 8:30 AM

Tess' organic sculpture absolutely belongs in Humboldt State's greenhouse -- how appropriate for a work of art that seeks to connect us to our planet. Fertility sculptures of women have been common art forms for centuries. Tess' creative take on this genre pleases, startles and provokes discussion, exactly what art should do. Kudos to HSU First Street Gallery for displaying the work.

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Posted by Jim Slocum on 05/06/2011 at 12:45 PM

Looks like the penis has gangrene.

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Posted by Grump on 05/07/2011 at 9:54 AM

so passe, blase, make it a Muslim penis and see how tough you are

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Posted by richard on 05/07/2011 at 11:52 AM

The Biology Department Chair is the "building coordinator" who had the piece removed. I saw the sculpture tonight at First Street Gallery, I found it lovely and thought provoking, Congratulations to Tess for creating such a life affirming work, and apologizes for such a ridiculous decision by a biologist who just doesn't get it.

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Posted by Terry on 05/07/2011 at 11:27 PM

Sounds like a bitter artist was just trying to upset some folks by making the tackiest, brightest thing they possibly could and placing it in the company of a world-class collection of plants. In a word, "trite."

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Posted by mitch on 05/08/2011 at 12:18 AM

Does the chairman of the biology department/building coordinator have a name? Who is this cretin?

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Posted by franko on 05/08/2011 at 11:05 PM

Writing for The Journal on May 5th, Marcy Burstiner’s shock that a building coordinator gets to decide on the art that’s shown in their building seems all too real. Her suggested policy change is nothing short of coup d’état, artists running around telling people who are responsible for an entire building how to do their jobs. Marcy writes that “what the art represents, what it looks like, or what a person might think when they look at it should have nothing to do with the building coordinator’s decision. True art always offends somebody.” Ad nauseam: how about a life-sized chainsaw sculpture in old-growth redwood of 1st Amendment champion and local newspaper editor Austin Wiley (The Journal, cover, 25-Feb-2010) in the lobby of the Behavioral and Social Sciences Building? Think about that one for a minute, it’s actually a lot more offensive than a 15-foot long leafy green schlong (which I was impressed with). Her entire piece was a tantrum, and I got the feeling that she is not only the kind of liberal who thinks that free access to quality healthcare is a basic human right, but also the kind who thinks that hanging your art on somebody else’s wall is as well. And Ms. Burstiner is the proud advisor of the award-winning Lumberjack, eh? Awards presumably determined before the April 13th issue’s Direct Action Guide offered advice on how to wheatpaste “massed produced” propaganda around a community! The 4/20 issue, along with a Google Map of cool places to get high, published a letter from Chief Dewey ’83 reminding the Jack that wheatpasting constitutes vandalism under the law and can get you convicted and expelled. That’s bad advice, Jack; that’s bad advising, Marcy; that’s not excellent, dude. Beyond the legality of wheatpasting, the recipe said to mix the wheat and water and boil after stirring, but for how long? Bring to a boil and immediately remove from heat? Bring to a boil, set stove to simmer, leave uncovered and go smoke a bowl at destination 13 for a couple hours? The Lumberjack’s advice on how to conduct illegal activities was half-assed, and that’s the kind of crap that gets people killed out there. Marcy should have noticed and advised.

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Posted by Randall on 05/11/2011 at 12:53 AM

Randall, the advisor's role generally does not include censorship.

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Posted by Grump on 05/11/2011 at 10:53 AM

"The Lumberjack’s advice on how to conduct illegal activities was half-assed, and that’s the kind of crap that gets people killed out there." I encourage you to do more or less drugs.

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Posted by Encouragement on 05/11/2011 at 11:02 AM

More about the Artist, Tess Dahlgren: Humboldt State Track and Field athletes posted impressive marks, personal records and all-time rankings at the San Francisco State Distance Carnival on March 25. The meet focused on middle-and-long distance races, but did feature sprints and a high jump competition. Tess Dahlgren, whose art was recently censored by the HSU Biology Chair, represented the HSU Women’s Track & Field Team in the Women’s 3,000-meter Steeple Chase. The lone HSU representative in the steeple chase, Tess Dahlgren won her heat of the steeple chase in 11-minutes, 22-seconds. Dahlgren said it was her first win ever and that she was happy with how she performed. The steeple chase takes runners 8 laps around the track with barriers and a water pit to get through. Dahlgren laughed after finishing her race as if five 30-inch-tall wooden barriers and a pit of water over 2-feet deep were easy to get through during each lap. Her time ranks her second on HSU’s all-time list for the event, just behind All-American alumna Megan Rolland. She grows in our estimation daily...a model student; hardly bitter, as claimed in a previous comment.

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Posted by Alex on 05/11/2011 at 9:13 PM

the reality is that most of the art on campus is either ugly, or creates a hazard to others where it is on display. there is a very dangerous piece in the library that is hanging precariously from the second and third floors. it should have never been allowed to be installed in the first place because it poses a danger to community members like myself and also to faculty and students.

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Posted by ed on 05/17/2011 at 10:07 AM

Ed exaggerates. Ed's comment betrays his ignorance of art and his parochial tastes.

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Posted by Alex on 05/19/2011 at 6:52 AM

Heaven forbid if Tess Dahlgren's 64 foot long braided rope should fall on someone. She made it, braided it, from colorful cut up thrift shop blankets. Another amazing piece of art by this brilliant student.

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Posted by RAHeaveb forbid if Tess Dahlgren's 64 foot lPUNZEL on 05/19/2011 at 7:52 AM

Tess was close to death when she was fourteen. She suffered a massive brain hemorage on a camp- out trip in the Idaho backcountry. An AVM. She was in the hospitol ( Primary Childrens Care in SLC) 30 days preping for twelve hours of brain surgery. Ninety eight percent 98 per cent die.

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Posted by Dad on 05/25/2011 at 9:46 PM
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