Dear Ms. Jackson,
I recently learned of your administration’s decision to close the
exhibition of Wafaa Bilal’s Virtual Jihadi. Rensselaer’s censoring of
this work is truly shameful. At a moment when critical thinking is
under assault and Universities are one of the few places in society
where dissenting ideas can flourish and intellectual ferment can take
flight, it is tragic that another university has taken us one more
step on the road to a high tech Dark Ages.
I too am an artist and am no stranger to having my art threatened
with censorship. I first received national attention in 1989 when my
art became the center of controversy over its use of the American flag
when it was on display at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
President G.H.W. Bush declared my artwork What is the Proper Way to
Display a U.S. Flag? “disgraceful” and the entire US Senate denounced
this work when they passed legislation to “protect the flag.” My work
is now exhibited widely including in the 2006 Whitey Biennial.
I have not seen Virtual Jihadi and because of your decision few other
people will. But from everything I have read about it, it is a vitally
important work now. The US is waging an immoral, illegal and unjust
war and occupation in Iraq. It is widely unpopular throughout the
world and in this country. As part of generating support for this
war, the Bush administrations demonized Saddam Hussein. The video
“game” that Mr. Bilal reinterpreted, started its life as “Quest for
Saddam”. It was made in the US and was favorably discussed on FOX
News, CNN, MSNBC and news outlets. There are many questions that Mr.
Bilal’s work raises that people in the US, including the students at
Rensselaer, should contemplate: “Is the American perspective on
question the only perspective and is it always right?” “What does it
feel like to be demonized and targeted?” “What role do video games
play in shaping our worldview?” “What would drive someone to feel that
they have no choice but to become a suicide bomber?”, are some that
come to my mind.
If Mr. Bilal’s art were in any way encouraging people to carry out
what his avatar in Virtual Jihadi does, it would be very harmful. And
if this were promoted as a means of progressive or radical political
change it would do tremendous damage to the actual development of
political opposition to the policies it would allegedly be against.
But that is not what this artwork does. It asks the viewer to think
about the world in new ways and for many it will challenge
preconceived notions and views. Isn’t that what great art should do?
Isn’t that what a University is supposed to support?
What kind of society do you have when America can wage war against a
country (killing hundreds of thousands, making millions of refugees
and driving many to Islamic fundamentalism) and respected artists
can’t raise provocative questions about it?
The action you have taken has consequences far beyond Rensselaer.
One clear indication of this is that at the time I am writing this,
the work has moved to another venue and been suppressed there as well.
You should reverse your decision to not show Virtual Jihadi
immediately. Furthermore, Rensselaer should invite Mr. Bilal to
reinstall the work and open in the originally intended location as
soon as possible and announce these intensions without delay. Though
this move would be opposed by some of the people you intended to
placate by suppressing his work, there will be tremendous support for
you if you take this step. I hope that you will do the right thing.