Opinion: Removal of art piece shows Bloomsburg is outraged about the wrong things

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*Author’s note: The featured image above shows Bloomsburg University student and artist Kasey Halbleib setting up her exhibit in the Greenly Center in March. Credit: The Gallery at Greenly Center Facebook page. The views in this piece are my own, and I firmly stand by them.

BLOOMSBURG, Pa. — A student’s art display of a bleeding uterus has caused quite a stain on Bloomsburg’s greater community the past two weeks. Let me repeat, a bleeding uterus. Yes, a bleeding uterus has caused more public discourse and outrage than decidedly more offensive incidents of racism, anti-LGBT hate and xenophobia in recent years.

Social media advertisement for Halbleib’s exhibit. Credit: The Gallery at Greenly Center cover photo.

The art and its response

Bloomsburg University junior art major Kasey Halbleib was the first student to display her work as part of the Greenly Center’s annual Student Selected Show, with her exhibit scheduled to run March 12 to April 13. Only part of her show, titled “Societal Structures-the 21st century experience” made it to the promised end date.

The removed piece is fittingly titled “not yours — get uncomfortable.” It depicts a bleeding uterus, with a tampon hanging out of it, in the forefront of the Greek female gender symbol, ♀. See for yourself below:

Halbleib’s piece entilted “not yours — get uncomfortable” on display at the Greenly Center. Credit: The Gallery at Greenly Center Facebook page

Is this a “crude” piece of work, as L.L. Long, who wrote to the Press-Enterprise to complain, has called it?

Or is it an artistic depiction of a female reproductive organ?

I say it’s the latter.

Simply put, it’s the female reproductive system. Quite frankly, if it offends you, I suggest you reassess your priorities—and certainly, don’t even think about taking an anatomy and physiology class.

Late Thursday morning, BU Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dr. Diana Rogers-Adkinson, sent an email to faculty and staff explaining the university’s decision to remove the piece from its window display on Main Street.

“Following a complaint, we conceded to substitute the piece, as in a traditional show this performance art piece would have been shown in a space that provided the observer the choice to interact with the art or not,” wrote Dr. Rogers-Adkinson. She then references First Amendment rights and informs the community the piece will instead display in a virtual event next month.

What strikes me as bizarre, is that the university official attempts to placate the situation by appearing to abide by the First Amendment, citing the student’s cooperation in the removal of the piece. But don’t be fooled. This was censorship.

Halbleib’s show was meant to make people uncomfortable about societal issues; in the case of “not yours — get uncomfortable” the goal was met, perhaps exceedingly, and proves the point that people can’t rest well with the concept of menstruation. So much so that they complain to the BU Board of Trustees and demand the piece taken away from the window.

Dr. Rogers-Adkinson sends a conflicting message when she writes, “As a University, we remain committed to defending our students’ rights to be heard, especially in areas that may cause us or others mental or emotional discomfort.”

Conceding to remove a work of art due to the discomfort surrounding the female reproduction system is not “defending…students’ rights to be heard.” It’s weighing one or several individuals’ outdated views as more important than the rights of students to be heard. Ironically, in doing so, the university has drawn much more attention to the issue.

The provost’s penultimate line reads, “It is important that all voices are heard, even those with which we may not agree.” Yet, the student-artist’s voice was attempted to be muffled by the townspeople’s disagreement. When you say “all voices,” Dr. Rogers-Adkinson, do you only mean safe, noncontroversial ones? In removing the piece, how did you allow “all voices to be heard?”

Attitudes surrounding menstruation

It’s no secret our society doesn’t like talking about menstruation. In UC Berkeley’s online publication, the Public Health Advocate, Jill Litman explains:

“Menstruation is a shared experience among all females…And yet, menstruation is also a widely stigmatized issue. It is a topic that people are usually uncomfortable talking about and is typically a topic that is only discussed behind closed doors.”

Even women themselves contribute to the stigma. As printed in the Press-Enterprise, Long, the self-righteous woman who submitted her take on Halbleib’s piece, elaborates “every male I’ve known regardless of skin color, wants nothing to do with a woman’s menstrual cycle, let alone be privy to removing a tampon.”

Long also stated the piece “shouldn’t have been part of a public art display.”

Her reasoning? “Children and others shouldn’t have been exposed to this explicit piece. The rights of one shouldn’t infringe on another.”

Long paints a clear picture of just how pronounced menstrual stigma is in our society, even in 2021. She is a woman who, presumably, is so uncomfortable with her own anatomy that she dramatically writes to the local paper, boldly insinuating a comparison between the artist and Hitler.

Seriously, she goes on a rant about her idea of morality, claiming, “There is no such thing as ‘your own truth.’ If we all acted upon what we merely believed to be right, rather than what is right, we’d be in a world of trouble.”

Get ready for the Hitler part. She continues, “There was once this charismatic leader who acted on what he believed was right — his name was Hitler…”

Long’s letter to the editor is laughable at best, and grotesquely absurd at worst. She and others who complained to the trustees have a warped view of reality. It’s anatomy.

Ask yourselves, would you have the same reaction to the penis sketches that don the desks of literally every middle school? Why is it when there are displays of male anatomy, they are accepted as commonplace and shrugged off, yet when it’s a matter of female anatomy, everyone’s panties get in a bunch? Did my mention of “panties” offend you, too?

Long closed her tirade, in part, by declaring, “We women need to understand our points and back them up with clear facts.” I’m attaching a clear fact. Trigger warning: it’s an anatomically-correct diagram of a uterus from MedlinePlus, a governmental information service.

A uterus. Credit: MedlinePlus

The year is 2021, not 1950. It’s time we accept female anatomy and menstruation for what it is: natural.

By perpetuating the narrative that women’s bodies and functions should be hush-hush, we teach our young girls to be ashamed of their bodies. We teach them to be embarrassed when they get their periods. We teach them to conform to the status quo. We teach them to quiet their voices.

Yet we live in a culture where seven-year-olds already know what Viagra is and what it does. Meanwhile, men gag at Tampax and Always commercials.

Wrong priorities

Bloomsburg is no stranger to incidents of hate targeted at minority communities, both on campus and in town. Within the last few years alone, Bloomsburg has been the setting to several questionable happenings:

  • – In 2015, a BU student tweeted a misogynistic take on female Little League World Series athlete, Mo’ne Davis.
  • – In 2016, a Bloomsburg Fair vendor, who was previously arrested on charges of child pornography, was selling swastika flags and was ultimately asked to leave due to “threats against him, among the ‘many’ complaints on social media.”

– In 2017, the 13-person Bloomsburg Fair board voted unanimously to allow vendors to sell Confederate merchandise.

-In 2020, the Bloomsburg Fair held a charity event in which people dunked a man dressed as a woman meant to portray Dr. Rachel Levine, who is transgender.

Those are only a few of the more publicized examples. Minority students, particularly those of color, experience uncomfortable feelings of hatred on a regular basis. There exists a disconnect between the townspeople and the diverse student population.

Most recently, a vocal religious group visited campus to preach horrendous views. BU students know this type of group visits campus at least once a year, if not every semester, and it always causes a scene. However, the last time was March 11, 2021, during the pandemic. None of the demonstrators wore masks.

Religious protestors on BU campus, March 11, 2021. Credit: BUnow’s Olivia Antonucci

The outright defiance of the protestors to wear masks should have been enough to evict the group from campus grounds, let alone the obscene messages they yelled and adorned on signs.

No student who happened upon the crass demonstrators necessarily chose to see the group. Did they choose to engage with them? Yes. But they did not have a choice, in their goings to and from class, on whether or not to see and hear the religious extremists.

Despite the incredibly offensive narrative coming from the group, BU did not order them to leave.

An emailed message to the BU community on that day, sent from BU Marketing and Communications, stated:

“The University has learned that there is a group of individuals planning to visit campus today to use our campus location to exercise their constitutional rights of assembly and free speech. As a state institution on public grounds, our campus is open to all individuals who hold a variety of beliefs… Free and open discourse is a hallmark of a comprehensive educational experience. As such, everyone must be afforded the ability to speak, listen, challenge and learn from diverse perspectives in a respectful manner.”

Virtually no action was taken against the group to get them to leave. First Amendment rights for racist, homophobic, sexist, xenophobic extremists? Granted.

The university passively condoned this in-your-face display:

Photo credit: Olivia Antonucci

…and actively condemned this window art display:

Credit: The Gallery at Greenly Center Facebook page

I pose this question: are your priorities in the right place? Are you outraged by the messages truly plaguing our community, alienating our people and straining town-gown relations, or are you offended by an accurate representation of a body part?

To those who complained about Halbleib’s piece—you could have walked right by it, just as you walk swiftly past your neighbors’ homegrown displays of hatred every day.

Comments

comments

1 COMMENT

  1. Dear readers,

    Below is my response to Provost Rogers-Adkinson’s defense of the removal of the artwork–and Ms. Rose is right on the money:

    Dear Provost Rogers-Adkinson,

    As a faculty member, feminist and environmental writer, committed activist, and Bloomsburg community member who has faced considerable backlash over my many years of service to the university precisely on the grounds of freedom of expression and first amendment rights, I think it important to point out that the very best way BU could have demonstrated respect and support for this student’s artwork would have been to simply refuse to participate in an act of censorship.

    By having “conceded to substitute the piece,” we have in fact condoned censorship–precisely contrary to the university’s stated mission of respect for freedom of expression. If freedom of expression fails to protect unpopular, controversial, even what some might regard as distasteful speech, it fails to protect all speech since there is no way after that concession to know what counts as “safe” or “acceptable” short of expression that says nothing or merely reinforces a status quo. It is that status quo this student sought to challenge. It is this status quo BU’s concession has reinforced.

    In other words, if you truly take seriously this student’s exercise of her first amendment rights, her artwork will be re-installed in its original location, and the university will defend it as an essential part of the mission of higher education. I realize this takes courage. But a university without courage is no university at all.

    Indeed, if you really think that all voices ought to be heard, and I believe sincerely that you do, that must include this student artist’s. For the original insult to her was not the reaction to her artwork, but that her university did not stand up for her. And if the response is to offer an alternative venue–one that appears safer–that undermines the very claim to value and respect those voices the student was clearly trying to let speak in her artwork.

    This student offered BU a fine opportunity to speak to this tumultuous year, particularly for the communities most harmed and least protected during the pandemic. Conceding to public pressure to remove it from its original location spoke yet more loudly–but the lesson to students, the BU community, and the town was neither about free speech nor about our value for underrepresented communities. The lesson was: do not speak loudly about things that really matter, for if you do your university will not stand behind you.

    Respectfully,

    w

    Wendy Lynne Lee, PhD
    Professor
    Department of Philosophy
    Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania
    wlee@bloomu.edu

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