Letter to the Editor: Marietta Daily Journal – What did lawmakers expect from KSU AIDS exhibit?

Sweet Williams, 2013 Robert Sherer, Sweet Williams, 2013
Sweet Williams, 2013
Robert Sherer, Sweet Williams, 2013

The Zuckerman Museum of Art at Kennesaw State University hosted the “Art AIDS America” exhibit from February 20 through May 22, 2016.  You can read more about the art by visiting the “Art AIDS America” link, but what follows from the ZMA website should provide you with some context and background on the exhibition:

This groundbreaking exhibition underscored the deep and unforgettable presence of HIV in American art. It introduced and explored a wide spectrum of artistic responses to AIDS, from the politically outspoken to the quietly mournful, surveying works from the early 1980s to the present. Art AIDS America was organized by Tacoma Art Museum in partnership with The Bronx Museum of the Arts, and co-curated by Dr. Jonathan D. Katz, Director, Visual Studies Doctoral Program at the University at Buffalo (The State University of New York), and Rock Hushka, Chief Curator at Tacoma Art Museum. The ZMA was the only southern representative on the tour of this critical exploration in art.

Needless to say, this exhibition rattled some of the more, shall we say, conservative members of our community – some of whom also happen to be elected politicians.  The result was a predictable cascade of right-wing shock and outrage, followed by a thinly veiled threat by one of the museum patrons, State Representative Earl Ehrhart, to withhold state funding from Kennesaw State University should the museum host another “controversial” exhibition. Representative Ehrhart’s exact words were, according to a Marietta Daily Journal article, “Cobb lawmakers blast Kennesaw State’s AIDS museum exhibit“:

“’I’m going to make it real clear, let’s just put it that way. I had a lot of success in getting Tech’s attention in spending taxpayer money on ridiculous things,’ said Ehrhart, referring to his criticism of how the Georgia Institute of Technology handles accusations of sexual assault. Ehrhart said when Georgia Tech ignored his requests, he eliminated the university’s request for a $47 million building.”

Representative Ehrhart along with Representative Ed Setzler and State Senator Lindsey Tippins continued to nearly trip over themselves to express their disdain, one even going so far as to suggest that some of the more provocative art, such as a piece by local artist Robert Sherer painted using HIV positive blood, might actually cause someone to contract AIDS as if HIV can magically spring off of a canvas and through a glass covered picture frame.  I immediately fired off the following Letter to the Editor.

DEAR EDITOR:

The reactions of shock, outrage and scientific illiteracy regarding HIV transmission expressed by Representatives Ehrhart and Setzler, and Senator Tippins to the “Art AIDS America” exhibit on display at KSU would be amusing were it not for the threat of censorship that accompanied them. What did these elected officials expect from such an exhibit? Norman Rockwell? Paintings of puppy dogs?

This is an exhibit about AIDS. A disease which has killed and continues to kill millions. It should be powerful. Parts of it should be ugly. It should be shocking. It should make us uncomfortable; maybe even nauseous. It should force us to reflect as a society on what we have done, and yes, on what we have not done, to address this awful disease so that we can learn and adjust.

The fact that Ehrhart’s reaction was to threaten to blackmail the University as a means to censor the Zuckerman Museum of Art is the real outrage here.

Ryan Bays

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