The only way the University of Wyoming could have handled the removal of controversial public art piece “Carbon Sink” any worse is if they would have used the coal and wood from the artwork as a pyre to roast the artist.
For those unfamiliar, “Carbon Sink” was a commissioned art piece which was seen as a critique on the coal industry. The artwork was created with coal and logs, and was called the “fire pit” by University of Wyoming President Thomas Buchanan, who apparently couldn’t even remember its name.
Documents first requested by Wyoming Public Radio and later obtained by the Star-Tribune paint the university in a pretty dim light — kowtowing to political pressure, lying to the public and ultimately censoring art in a terribly ham-handed way.
The artwork, which drew the furor of lawmakers and coal companies, was scheduled for removal next year, but instead was removed earlier this year. Originally, university officials said that it was only scheduled for display through part of this year. Then a water leak damaged the art supposedly necessitating its early removal. Those were the official reasons given and the university insisted it was not bowing to political pressure.
But the emails reveal the university intentionally misled the public by saying “Carbon Sink” was scheduled to be removed a year early. And the water leak happened after the decision to remove it had been made.
Besides what appears to be a willful attempt by the university to mislead the public and fabricate excuses, the Carbon Sink debacle shows just how the university trampled free speech.
Whenever a university has an art program, it must accept that certain exhibits, pieces or installations will bring controversy. That’s part of the deal with art — it’s provocative, controversial and edgy. Part of the purpose is to get people talking — and thinking. Those are all important functions of a university.
What the university should have said when critics came calling: The display of any artwork, even a commissioned piece, doesn’t mean an endorsement of an idea.
Meanwhile, as the university rushed to smooth any hurt energy company feelings, it also stopped another key process of free speech. Certainly, there was a good chance that some larger coal producers could have stopped or turned down university pledges or donations as a sign of protest.
That’s their right and it’s a form of expression no less powerful than speech. We can’t blame energy companies which may stop donating. After all, not many businesses want to give millions to those who they feel antagonize them. No business would do that.
Instead, by cowering before the whims of potential donors, the university has sent a very dangerous and disturbing message: Its position can be bought. Or, conversely, it will succumb to any pressure if a donation of any size hangs in the balance.
After the Bill Ayers public relations disaster, after “Carbon Sink” sank, what can the university do to restore the credibility of this great institution?
Destroying this piece of art early has only served to burn it into the public’s memory for much longer. Had the university weathered the initial controversy, it would have gone away quickly. Instead, “Carbon Sink” has become focal point for how the university removed controversial artwork, giving rise to claims of censorship and being in the energy industry’s back pocket.
To be fair: Many of the energy companies which could have taken offense did not. They seemed to understand that universities are places of critical thought and controversial art. Most energy companies have pretty smart folks, many of whom have spent plenty of time in places like the university. They understood the role, even if they weren’t happy with one artist’s interpretation.
While the university was ultimately responsible for the reaction and the mess it created when it misled the public, it should also be concerned that it kowtowed to pressure from legislators, who seemed, as a group, to be the ones most aggrieved.
While lawmakers have the same rights as any individual to be upset with any artwork on campus, the threats of funding cuts as punishment for “Carbon Sink” is equally disturbing.
Having conversations about funding levels at the state’s only four-year university is a topic worthy of discussion. But that’s not what these conversations were about.
Instead, the lawmakers wanted to use their power of the purse as punishment for one piece of art they didn’t like. Education funding should not be gotcha politics. Even more importantly, the University of Wyoming may be a state-funded university system. But “state funded” doesn’t mean state endorsed. Not everything coming from the university should have to pass legislators’ muster. Making education fit a political agenda seems like incredibly bad policy.
The university and lawmakers need to realize this flap goes beyond the sculpture itself. It’s given critics and skeptics of the university proof positive that what they feared most — the university kowtowing to special interests — had come true.