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We can have both art and coal

Sep 25, 2013 - By Chris Peck

And let's not ask college trustees to be art critics

Run trustees, run.

Do not get into the business of being Wyoming's art censors.

That's not what the trustees of a state university can do, or should do.

The Wyoming Legislature put you in a box.

They penned you in during the legislative session last year after some big mining interests expressed outrage over a University of Wyoming art installation called "Carbon Sink."

The work, which was a swirl of bug-infested logs laced with coal, was created by English artist Chris Drury. The artist wanted to encourage people to the consider the relationship between burning fossil fuels and degradation of the environment.

Leaders from Wyoming 's coal industry didn't like it. They complained that the art undercut public support for coal. The Legislature, sensitive to the biggest tax-generating industry in the state, decided it needed to invoke some rules about art.

They passed a law saying that in the future all artwork on public display at the University of Wyoming would need trustee approval.

Run, trustees, run.

It's an impossible task -- judging what is good art and bad.

Getting embroiled in a controversy between the coal industry and artistic freedom will be about as enjoyable as a double root canal.

Would you ask university trustees to decide what medicines to prescribe at a hospital?

Of course not.

Would you ask them to develop a curriculum for a college chemistry class?

Of course not.

These trustees are good people.

But they aren't art critics. They aren't trained to know a masterpiece from a garbage piece.

The whole notion of politicians passing judgment on art because of political pressure sounds more like a chapter from the old Soviet Union than from the modern American West.

To a get a sense of the morass that the Legislature has created, I sought out Jeff Lockwood, a noted scientist turned noted philosopher at the University of Wyoming.

Lockwood is remarkable. He's one of the rare college professors who spent 15 years building a national reputation as a scientist, then shifted gears and has spent the last decade as a writer and philosopher.

As a scientist, he raised millions in grants for UW, gained a national reputation for his research into biology and insects. For the first 15 years of his career he was a rock star in UW's Department of Plant, Soil and Insect Sciences.

In 2000, he went over to the humanities. Today he teaches creative writing and philosophy.

In short, he's been a thoughtful leader in both science and the arts.

And Professor Lockwood sees only trouble ahead if Wyoming insists that a college board of trustees serves as the state's art critic.

``If you are going to have a university, well, the university is a place where differing ideas are presented and debated, not constrained or censored by considerations of whether they are politically discomforting,'' Lockwood said.

``At a university, one of the functions of the arts is to challenge, stretch and engage students and the public.

``If you are going to have a university, this is what you are going to get. And it's kind of uncomfortable sometimes.'''

That's the point.

Art isn't created to please the coal industry, or the newspaper industry, or any political party.

Art is about human beings expressing themselves and trying to make sense of the world.

``And we all have different understanding of life, and of art,'' noted Professor Lockwood. ``And our different views of life don't always make sense to some people. Art is a matter of trying to express ourselves and the world in which we live.''

Some artists and some coal executives might have a different view of the world. Agreed. That's the way it should be.

For their part, many of the UW trustees are frantically trying to pass off the art critic role to something called the President's Public Art Committee.

Established by University of Wyoming president after the "Coal Sink" quarrel, the committee's mission is to ``enrich the cultural, intellectual and scholarly life of the students, faculty and staff.``

Oh, and deep down in the weeds of its seven-page mission statement, the President's Public Art Committee also notes the committee ``may require artists to engage stakeholders to discuss any proposed installation (both its physical nature and its content.)''

OK, fine. That means artists and coal mining executives might need to sit down and talk about the role of art, and the role of coal, and the role that each plays in our world.

That could be enlightening.

Understanding the value of art and protecting the right of free expression, in art, music, writing, religion and speech, must remain a core value of this nation.

And, understanding our reliance on fossil fuels and the role they play in our modern lives is a critical civic lesson, too.

Art and coal aren't mutually exclusive. That's what the conversation should be about -- not censorship and pressure politics.

Art and coal.

We can, and must, live with both.

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