Home » Letters » Letters Volume 33 no 3 January / February 2019

Letters Volume 33 no 3 January / February 2019

The Academic Execution of Javier Tapia Derek, The American obsession with race swings from the inhumanity of slavery to the inhumanity of masochistic atonement. Both extremes demand the sacrifice of anyone who steps into the never-ending civil war at the wrong time. Such is the case with Javier Tapia, a white, Peruvian-born American citizen who is an associate professor in the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Department of Painting + Printmaking. On October 25, 2018, a visiting adjunct professor named Caitlin Cherry alleged that Professor Tapia had called a security guard to determine her identity. The alleged incident took place before the start of the 9:00 a.m. classes. Prior to being forbidden to talk about the alleged incident, Professor Tapia explained that he had suggested that the guard speak with Ms. Cherry in order to open a particular room to which the guard and some university personnel needed access. When the guard followed university protocol and asked Ms. Cherry for identification, the latter assumed that Professor Tapia had initiated the action. Ms. Cherry, who is African American, allegedly complained to Noah Simblist, chair of the Department of Painting + Printmaking, that she had been the victim of racial discrimination. Ms. Cherry then allegedly filed a Title IX complaint through the Office of Equity and Access. This, in turn, resulted in an official “inquiry” that would determine whether or not to launch an “investigation.” The results of the inquiry may never be known since the university forbids Professor Tapia to address the issue. Meanwhile, Ms. Cherry and her supporters spread the news of the alleged incident on social media and proclaimed that she had been “profiled” and “criminalized.” In a move worthy of Joseph Goebbels, the Department of Painting + Printmaking allowed its students to defame Professor Tapia through its social media site. What the university should have treated as allegations became accusatory facts that gave the impression of an official license for the abuse of Professor Tapia. In addition, Ms. Cherry and her supporters gave interviews to print media outlets and to at least one television station, NBC12 in Richmond, Virginia. Pro-Cherry militants broadcast Professor Tapia’s telephone number, e-mail address, and home address. Then, on November 6, 2018, seven faculty members from the Department of Painting + Printmaking published a letter that accused Professor Tapia of “racial bias.” The seven authors and main signatories, all of whom are white, selectively solicited signatures from faculty, students, and administrators throughout the VCU School of the Arts. They had no evidence beyond the claims of the accuser. Yet they felt free to defame Professor Tapia, and they proceeded to make demands that included the retroactive prosecution of faculty deemed to have committed offenses against their “community.” To that end they wrote: “Encourage members of the VCUarts community, particularly current students and alumni, to report past instances of discrimination, harassment, or bias and provide them with clear guidelines regarding what to expect once a reports has been made.”1 An even darker passage echoes the approaches of North Korean re-education camps by threatening those who question the department’s official ideology: “If faculty are unwilling to address their own privilege and bias, and refuse to commit wholeheartedly to this justice work in our program, we question the validity of their employment in our department. Additionally, we call for acknowledgement of harm done from faculty who have committed acts of bias towards members of our community both directly and indirectly.”2 The Orwellian vagueness of the preceding citation should frighten anyone who is familiar with totalitarian processes. What constitutes “justice work,” and if it could be defined, why should any artist embrace it? Is it a call to make social realism the official style of the department? Does it imply a hierarchy of right thinking and right art making? Are formalists, such as Professor Tapia, guilty of aesthetic crimes? Furthermore, why should any citizen in a free society “address their own privilege?” Who defines privilege? The concept is as dangerous as it is nebulous. Nazis and Communists alike were fond of using privilege as a pretext for extermination. The same is true of “bias.” The term is exceedingly contextual. In fact, it could be used to question the actions that the faculty has taken against Professor Tapia. Have they “addressed” their own anti-Latin American, anti-middle class, ageist, and anti-formalist bias? Why did they write in the language of the Moscow Trials or the McCarthy hearings? After learning of the letter’s content, a student from the People’s Republic of China called it reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, a time when the Red Guards hounded supposedly bourgeois professors to death. The actions of the authors may not yet rise to the level of the murderous events in Mao’s China, but they nonetheless imply a thirst for vengeance. Subsequent actions supported the suspicion that the university was acting in bad faith. Shortly after the Thanksgiving holiday, Professor Simblist announced the following in a message to his department: “Starting in January, Caitlin Cherry will join the department of Painting and Printmaking full time as Assistant Professor of Art. Her appointment will last until May 2020. We welcome Caitlin Cherry to the department and look forward to working with her.”3 The official announcement of Ms. Cherry’s full-time employment left Professor Tapia’s supporters wondering if the incident had not been premeditated. While such an action could not be proven, the speedy hiring of Ms. Cherry called into question the ethics of an institution that appeared to be persecuting a Latin American professor. As if to confirm the suspicion of duplicity, on December 4, The Richmond Free Press, a local African American newspaper, published an anonymous opinion piece titled “Teaching While Black.” Without explaining why Professor Tapia was silent, the piece presented Ms. Cherry’s accusations not as allegations but as facts. The ability to play with narratives for political ends appears to define the postmodernist ethos of the painting department. As one graduate painting student said in 2016, “I like revisionist histories.” Her outlook supports the allegations of former undergraduates who claim that they suffered harassment, intimidation, and threats against their future careers for not conforming to the ideology of graduate and faculty activists. More disturbingly, they also allege that one of the authors of the faculty letter against Professor Tapia favors radical indoctrination over education and may have ties to organizations that advocate the overthrow of the United States Government. What had begun as possibly nothing more than a misunderstanding had reached a point that struck many within the Richmond art community as an ageist, classist, racist, xenophobic, and ideological purge. Whether or not it was true, VCU had given the impression that it supported Internet violence and hate speech in its efforts to implement its diversity policy. Many within the Richmond Latin American community, along with their Anglophone allies, began to see a disturbing pattern that reached back to 2015 when the Department of Painting + Printmaking targeted another Latin American-born professor for termination under a false accusation of racism. Although the professor kept his job, he still teaches under a cloud of suspicion that demonstrates the power of Title IX as a political weapon. He will retire early due to the ongoing campaign against him and the university’s passive complicity in the assassination of his character. The latest incident in the Department of Painting + Printmaking makes it difficult to believe that the expression of hatred and rhetorical violence directed against Professor Tapia is spontaneous. The language reflects deep-seated racist, xenophobic, sexist, ageist, and classist resentments. Its message is clear: one cannot be white, male, Latin American, educated, and middle-class in the United States of the twenty-first century without incurring the wrath of the most hateful elements. Immigrants such as Professor Tapia are not welcome because they cannot be disempowered for the sake of ideological manipulation and domination. In short, they will not conform to the third-class status that is expected from their kind. Consequently, they must be condemned for defying the colonialist narrative that affluent American activists impose upon Latin America: a narrative that preserves the region as a human zoo for ideological tourism. Any foreigner who defies the narrative must be vilified, humiliated, and eventually nullified. Character assassination through social media is only the first step. Imperialism has many forms. It ranges from overt economic exploitation to the reduction of the other to an eternal victim. Latin American victims are acceptable because they pose no threat to the status quo while they increase the profits of the social justice industry. Human suffering makes good copy, and good copy sells. How many books are published with the blood of immigrants? How many academic careers depend on the continuation of immigrant pain? In the end, greed motivates the actions of the self-styled anti-capitalists. For them, Latin Americans are lucrative rhetorical commodities that cannot be allowed to escape their constraints. Whenever they escape, the profits fall. Fascism also has many forms. The first is an obsession with identity. Everyone must be classified and placed in distinct boxes. Cosmopolitanism is intolerable. Cultures and peoples must not mix. Through the wearing of yellow stars or pink triangles, all must know their place. All must be readily identifiable. Each group must remain distinct. In the United States, this was the basis of official segregation. Today, it is the core of inclusive racism. Its primary rule is clear, “We must have one of each, but they must never touch or overlap.” The academy creates an illusion of diversity in order to hide its neo-segregation. Of course, the machinery of oppression cannot accept that Latin Americans are naturally and authentically diverse. They include multiple cultures, races, and nationalities. They are unwittingly cosmopolitan, and, yes, it is intolerable. Someone must pay. A scapegoat must be found. An example must be made of those who escape the prison of identity. Our shared humanity must be sacrificed to the obscenity of “separate but equal.” The system cannot bear a challenge to the profitable manufacture of diversity and the public relations sham of inclusion. The persecution of Professor Tapia is a case in point. How dare he be a Latin-American Westerner? Does he not know his place? This incident may not be a sign of an inevitably fascistic American future, but it does test our optimism. Only one thing is clear, namely, that intolerance is now the norm across the ideological spectrum. Fortunately, there are still enough rational, decent, and tolerant Americans that it may be possible to reassert the sense of fairness and justice that allowed this country to weather storms that shattered less flexible societies. Inflexibility is the hallmark of fascism. It would be tragic for it to triumph disguised as social justice. Perhaps the assault on Professor Tapia will serve to remind us that if we return to pre-modern irrationality, we will not survive. The ashes of Dresden, Auschwitz, and Hiroshima should make the lesson clear. Michael Ferrán,December 2018 The Original Twitter Editor Klee, The “Twittering” Machine …. Better than Trump “Tweeting” on “Twitter” about Making the Great Modern 20th Century Great Again in the New Millennial Century … Paul Klee, The “Twittering” Machine Die Zwitschermaschine. Museum of Modern Art, New York, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Purchase Fund. “The title alludes to a kind of child’s toy or domestic ornament, four mechanical birds resting on a hand crank, ready to sing when the crank is turned. In their still state, they give an intimidating impression, their gap… George Touche’ 8/11/2018 Monoculturism Editor Also to be considered is the role of the CIA in promoting Abstract Expressionism. “How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art” by Serge Guilbaut. Strange bedfellows, the CIA and Greenberg. Likely he didn’t know… For a while now I’ve been disturbed by the thought that the Avant Garde consist of a group following a common ideology. It suggests history is made by bullies. Miklos Legrady 19/10/2018 Hi Miklos, How true, “It suggests history is made by bullies”, considering the bullies of today who operate only for their economic interest, often with terrifying consequences and total disregard of human rights. They do, indeed, make history; however, we need to defend our freedom of the press. Silence is deadly, while defending freedom of the press can be deadly in the real sense. Pendery Weekes 20/10/2018 Miklos, Prior to our time, art history has been made by superior art, most of which can be construed as belonging to this or that specific group with both shared and not so shared viewpoints. Whether this continues in the future seems unlikely. Pluralism has spawned a large number of groups with shared viewpoints, but has also led to deprecating thoughts like “superior art”, substituting “relevant”, “new”, “revolutionary”, “provocative”, and others, each the more the better, as the preferred modes for paying attention to art. I really don’t know where this will wind up or how long it will last. John Link 11/12/2018 The Words We Use Editor Canadian artist David Evans wrote, “the term ‘post-modern’ always seemed an absurd conceit. As though ‘modernism’ could be declared null and void by intellectual fiat. Then we’d have the end of art history – the triumph of reductivism.‬‬‬” Today, art theory is like a broken telephone game. Someone’s doctoral thesis misinterprets another’s in a long chain of papers based on each other, the original wrong in both premise and conclusion… these scholars tasked as “risk-takers, art historians, popular voices, and truth-seekers” promote a dubious ideology in exchange for a horse’s feedbag. Daniel Nanavati is editor of Chicago/London’s New Art Examiner. He spoke of how postmodernity for decades co-opted the best and brightest, until in time the post-truth world failed and badly needs archiving. We found that calling a stick a work of art made no difference to the stick which remained as much stick as it ever was. Nanavati spoke of a new movement of artists and writers who’ve had enough, want change and discovered each other online through their writing. A self-organizing spontaneous network to toss out the “same old, same old” school and it’s practitioners, for the postmodern do not know what art is… but they know their comfort zone and will dig in tenaciously. Best practice is to write about the emperor’s new clothes with criticism on a bed of witticism. The ontology of art starts with an etymology. Oscar Wilde had mastered of the art of conversation just as the famed Bartolomeo Scappi, chef to Pope Pius IX circa 1850, had mastered the art of cuisine; so during the Renaissance the Borgia were masters at the art of poisoning their business rivals; art has always meant a skillful, intuitive, transcendent, and unique excellence above the scope of professionals. This definition of art rejects Jean-Francois Lyotard’s myopic postmodern vision, gained while standing on the shoulders of tarnished giants who questioned metanarratives before him. Duchamp wanted to delete the senses from art but we’ve learned that rejecting sense is nonsense, senseless and insensible; the language stirs to speak for itself. Walter Benjamin says that all we can ask of art is an accurate reproduction of reality, that aesthetics, creativity, and authorship are Fascist inventions,(4) then Benjamin committed suicide from a catastrophic failure of morale.(5) Sol Lewitt says that an idea is art(6); try telling your high-school teacher thinking about your homework was the same as doing it. Lyotard is disrupted by facts remaining facts regardless of contingency so the foolish man built his house on sand. Then the rain fell and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. Matthew 7:24-27 Miklos Legrady 29/08/2017 Conflict of Interest? Editor, One does wonder about the 3 items with their prices inside the article if the New Art Examiner hasn’t started a partnership with the Victoria and Albert merchandising department or if the magazine itself has opened up shop. As almost every museum has its own gift shop that visitors are practically forced to go through, it could be that the New Art Examiner has found a way to discreetly have a gift shop inside the articles. This could be the start of something. Stella Thomas 03/09/2018 (Ed: We never do things like this. It is part of the ethical approach we have to writing.)
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