I’ve never been to Bard College, but it has always been a little special to me, since that’s where Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were students when they met and started Steely Dan.
More recently, it’s been in the news (well, the news among China-watchers) because of a controversy over an art exhibit. You can read the story, entitled “Chinese Students at Bard College Offended By Art Exhibit”, here at the China Change website.
You can pretty much predict the story just from reading the headline: art exhibit contains material critical of Chinese government; brainwashed Chinese student mob hysterically demands censorship and shrieks about the “hurt feelings of the Chinese people.” We all know the narrative. The article contributes to this by saying that “[t]he community of Chinese students (currently over 100) and scholars at Bard took issue with the exhibit.”
Except that’s not exactly what happened. I urge people not to simply accept this familiar narrative without digging deeper. Reality is not as tidy as we’d like it to be. The article talks about a letter from a Chinese student; take a look at what the student actually wrote, and the professor’s response. (Since the link may not last, I’m posting the letter and the professor’s response at the end of this post.)
There is stuff in the letter to disagree with, but it seems genuinely thoughtful and respectful. Most impressive to me was that the writer goes out of his way to state that he is writing in his personal capacity and does not purport to speak for all Chinese students, some of whom have different views. It can be very tempting for the leader of any group, to say nothing of a Chinese student group, to claim to speak on behalf of the whole. (The president of the American Bar Association recently got into a bit of trouble of this kind when he wrote a letter about the Kavanaugh nomination purporting to represent the entire ABA.) The writer does not say anything about hurting the feelings of the Chinese people, etc., and does not inaccurately claim to speak for all Chinese students; it is the China Change article that asserts that “the community of Chinese students” took offense. I respect Yaxue Cao’s work very much, but the article is just wrong to generalize in this way.
For example, the letter-writer says, “I personally appreciate you and your colleagues’ efforts and regard your works as thought-provoking stimulus. There are also many who share these feelings and who do not at all feel offended in this case. And yet still a large number of us find our concerns genuine and heartfelt — there could have been much better ways and more appropriate days to examine these topics and call for public attention.”
He also says, “I do not speak for anyone other than myself and I do not assume representation of anyone other than myself, either. I have tried my best to faithfully summarize the concerns raised from an interesting discussion that include many members of the Bard Chinese Community in order to update these feedbacks with you. I humbly forward these to you as some of my own personal concerns.”
Thus, this is very far from the neat and familiar “brainwashed Chinese student mob shrieks for censorship” story it might at first appear to be. The student expressed his views, and the views of some of his fellow students, in a rational and respectful way. I don’t know what more we could ask of him, unless we demand that he simply shut up and just sit there stewing – not a good way to teach people, in my opinion. I congratulate the professor on her response.
Dear Prof. Karetzky,
Good Morning! I am Frederick Siyuan Min, a second-semester junior major in Political Studies and the Chair of Chinese Student Organization (CSO). I am writing to you about some personal concerns recently brought to me by my Chinese schoolmates at Bard regarding to the photo exhibition currently held in Campus Center, which you have co-curated. This could take a few minutes to read and I would like to thank you in advance for your time and consideration.
You must have known and studied the content of theses photos thoroughly, but for the sake of clarification, please bear with me: the series of photos features a large variety of topics relating to China and Chinese culture, including images of protests, an armed person waving a gun in front of Mao Zedong, the founding father of People’s Republic of China, and a Statue of Liberty photoshopped to be on the Tiananmen Square, where the Monument to the People’s Heroes actually stands. These are highly controversial and heavily loaded topics. As the striking black-and-white images have successfully drawn the attentions of people passing by in Campus Center, there is by far no tag or any explanation on the artworks. (I believe they are still in progress.)
The day before yesterday was October 1st, the National Day in mainland China, as equivalent to the Fourth of July here. Although Bard has protected us well, one has to admit that there has been ongoing and escalating tensions between the US and China, between both economies and between the peoples. Therefore, I was not surprised when I was approached by more than a few Chinese students who expressed their concerns about the timing, method of display, and the narrative of this exhibition that tackles on so many sensitive and controversial themes. I believe some of them have already approached faculty members individually, before I was informed about the issue. But I am concerned, as well; and I would like to pass these concerns to the curators of this event.
After I received several complaints, I directly went to the online WeChat group that consists most enrolling students, recent graduates, visiting scholars from China and our East Asian Representative Mr. Shawn Moore, (as I was not on campus and was with the BGIA program in New York City) and asked for their opinions on the exhibition. As a result, a vibrant and highly intellectual conversation took place. It is in Chinese but I would love to share the transcript if you are interested. As if now, I will take the privilege to summarize their messages and deliver them to you.
Major concerns are, but not confined within, that:
Firstly, despite the possible artistic implications, the political messages of these works are precise, and particularly provocative due to the choice of time of this exhibition. They are inflaming messages sent to a targeted group of people at a very sensitive time. Exactly one century ago, a rather reckless man insisted on attending a military drill and touring the city of Sarajevo on Vidovdan, the Serbian national day, which then cost he and his wife’s lives, sparking a series of exacerbating diplomatic crisis as well as violence that eventually led to World War I. It is not really an accurate analogy as the extent and intentions of Archduke Ferdinand are not in any way parallel to those of the curators, but the assumed delicacy of the choice of time during politically heated times is at stake. We do not know whether such a date is deliberately chosen, and believe that a postponement could have made this event much more educational and less emotional as it is supposed to be.
Secondly, many have argued that these photos imply an outdated, narrow-minded and self-righteous point of view full of orientalism. It is understood that most artists come from China but many think that these works have failed to produce a comprehensive understanding of China today or China in its past; nor does it reflect the views of the majority of China or of us. These are topics worthy of attention, discussion, debate, and even more, an academic scrutiny. Whereas, without any tag or further explanation on the artworks, one under the impression of this exhibition and without any other knowledge, might very well misinterpret China in a biased perspective.
Thirdly, many have indicated that it almost feels like an ambush to have seen these photos displayed in Campus Center, rather than in a particularly featured exhibition, and been forced to answer questions from our curious American friends. For anyone proud of and willing to defend their nationality, it is unfair to be publicly embarrassed in front of friends, classmates and faculty advisors. There is a certain sense of betrayal especially since we are Bard students and we have been extremely grateful to the pluralistic yet always respectful atmosphere here. We have rarely found ourselves in a position where we are to be judged by our nationality, our ethnics, the history of our country or the policies of our government. However, many of us feel like we are when having to withstand the strong emotional impact of this exhibition at an extremely open public area on campus.
That said, I am — I do not speak for CSO nor for the more-than-a-hundred Chinese students at Bard — and yet still confident that our students are not embarrassed or afraid of talking about these topics. CSO has previously organized documentary screenings followed by panels along with the Asian Studies and History Departments on the Tiananmen Square incident and civil rights movement in China. They were successful in terms of the willingness to engage and the intellectual capacity of our fellow students. And I believe all of us understand and have upheld the honored Bard traditions of proper rhetorics, even in an online group chat: we respect, we do not judge, we do not neglect the minority and we think critically, using everything we have learnt from our education here which we do so enjoy. I personally appreciate you and your colleagues’ efforts and regard your works as thought-provoking stimulus. There are also many who share these feelings and who do not at all feel offended in this case. And yet still a large number of us find our concerns genuine and heartfelt — there could have been much better ways and more appropriate days to examine these topics and call for public attention. It will be best if this exhibition is not held during national celebration days. In the meantime, the matters articulated in the exhibition deserve a more careful and comprehensive academic scrutiny. We would like to be, instead of shocked in public and then lectured, involved in a free, civil and equal conversation i.e. a panel discussion with not only the curators and artists, but also professors from our Asian Studies and History Departments. We would like to address our feelings and understandings with you, and we would like to hear more from you, with all due respect and sincere gratitude that you have provided us with an opportunity to rethink about and hopefully look beyond our identity with utterly good intentions.
This email has been presented in our WeChat group prior to being sent to you, and has not received any more request for further revision. I do not speak for anyone other than myself and I do not assume representation of anyone other than myself, either. I have tried my best to faithfully summarize the concerns raised from an interesting discussion that include many members of the Bard Chinese Community in order to update these feedbacks with you. I humbly forward these to you as some of my own personal concerns. Thank you again for your time and I look forward to hearing from you.
Frederick S. Min
Chair of Chinese Student Organization
Thank you for your letter and I am happy you took the time to confront me directly. There are several misunderstandings here. First, the time slot was decided last spring by the campus directors of the space. I had no idea of the significance of the date, OCT 1, certainly no political import was intended. Secondly, I mounted this show by myself, with the help of two Chinese students, and so did not have enough time to put up the labels. They are now mounted along with a copy of the catalogue which I include for you here as a pdf. Please feel free to disseminate it as you see fit. Thirdly, this show is a traveling show, it first was shown in the Fall of 2017 at John Jay College of Criminal Justice part of the City University of New York, it is on their website. These artists and the co- curator, all live in China; some of them have world-wide renown and accolades for their courage in speaking freely about human rights problems in China. I, for my part, thought it was important to realize the impact of American ideals of democracy that have inspired people in China. The photo of participants in the umbrella movement was from Hong Kong, and the demonstrators in the street were engaging in the democratic movement in Taiwan, where realizing the ideal of democracy is hopeful. This is all the more important to me today, as I say in the preface of the catalog, because these very values are at risk in our society, where freedom of speech is being challenged.
These photos illustrate the abuses of human rights in China, the persecution of the people involved in the democracy movement, the problems of rural people who have come to the city seeking employment and are forced to live on the edge of the consumer society in Beijing in camps on the outer ring roads without water or electricity, the plight of prostitutes, homosexuals and transgender people and the problems of women seeking equality in the work place and in society in general. These are problems we still face in America, and seeing them on view makes us all the more aware of the imperfections of our society. Exposing these abuses is important for any hope of resolution. I think several of the facts explained here, had they been known at the time of the installation, would have allayed many of the fears of the students you described in your letter.
It is important to me that you realize this show is dedicated to the noble prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who was the voice of democracy until his recent death during incarceration in China. It is his saying, “I have no enemies and no hatred” that led my preface. I assembled this show in part because of my admiration of his strength, courage and humanity.
It is also important to point out to you my lifelong engagement and admiration of Chinese culture, please check my website for my over 10 books, sixty articles and international presentations devoted largely to Chinese culture–modern, medieval and religious. Please see my website for the more than a dozen catalogues of shows I have curated on such topics of contemporary Chinese art- as the literary culture, cultural identity, Daoism and Christianity, to name a few. Several of these were held at Bard.
I would like to invite you and any and all who are interested in the current exhibit to join me in a round table discussion which will be held after the showing of dissident films by Chinese artists in the Campus Center on Oct 13 at noon. After which there will be a reception.
I would be happy if you could post my response on wechat so your fellow students do not remain misinformed as to my purpose.