Photo by Channa Steinmetz
Like many artists, alumna Angelica Ramos expresses her “innermost raw, visceral emotions” through her art. When Ramos prepared her final collegiate piece for the walls of the Weisman Museum, she didn’t anticipate covering it up.
When administrators removed alumni David Limon’s LGBTQ+ dance from Dance in Flight, company member Michael Mossucco heard the message loud and clear, deciding to keep his sexuality to himself.
For those like Ramos, Limon and Mossucco who reach within to share their souls with others, regulation is their biggest fear. Censorship and art share a rich and complex relationship that spans across history.
Fine Arts Professor Ty Pownall said artists see censorship as almost universally negative.
“I think at its core, it’s just the suppression of a creative endeavor on the basis of it being problematic for any number of reasons,” Pownall said. “Censoring something is just quieting something you don’t like.”
Art typically strives for impact, making it frequently provocative in nature. Artists break the boundaries of the present to make way for the future. Sometimes it’s reflective. Often, it’s pretty. Other times it’s bold, maybe even obscene.
The Pepperdine community faces its own unique struggle in determining the balance between celebrating creative expression and upholding religious community values.
Seaver Dean Michael Feltner defines censorship as limiting self-expression.
“I think censorship is when one entity limits or in some way minimizes the ability of another individual or party to fully express themselves in a manner that they see as appropriate,” Feltner said. “I think that last clause is critical.”
Pownall said the word “censorship” is emotionally charged.
“The word itself is used as a negative word,” Pownall said. “So if work is removed, people who were removing it would not want to call it censorship because that word historically is a negative word.”
Feltner said censorship’s definition varies depending on who one asks.
“Anytime you have two people engaged in a conversation, they’re going to have unique and different perspectives,” Feltner said. “And so what one group views as censorship may be a very rational view of another group or party based on their individual perspectives.”
When it comes to restrictions, Ramos speaks from personal experience.
“Censorship does have a purpose, and when it’s used correctly, it’s protecting people from certain things,” Ramos said. “I just think that it crosses a boundary, and that boundary is so fine when it comes to art.”
Last year, Ramos illustrated a piece that was a “dissection of the ’80s punk movement” for her senior art exhibit featured in the Weisman. The illustration included hand-graffitied words and phrases that Ramos had read in bathroom stalls.
“It’s very real stuff that people say and exists in this world — it’s not just made up,” Ramos said.
Soon before the exhibit was scheduled to open, Pepperdine administration suggested Ramos remove some of the explicit wording from the graffitied text in her piece. Ramos complied with the school’s request.
Some of the phrases included in Ramos’ piece were, “I’m a bad bitch,” “Punk ass trash” and “You have a cute butt.” These phrases remained. Only the statements including “f**k” were covered.
Although Ramos complied, she disagreed with the university’s religious reasoning.
“I think that the whole point of religion is community, and you’re blocking yourself off from entire communities when you say, ‘Hey, [you] can’t show that here’ or ‘You can’t discuss those topics,’” Ramos said.
Feltner said Ramos was the final decision maker when covering the words in her piece.
“I never asked her to consider covering any words,” Feltner said. “We explained that we didn’t think the work was reflective of institutional values, [and] in that, asked her to reconsider the work. … So I asked the faculty adviser to communicate to Angelica reconsideration of the work if she wished to have it remain in the Weisman. If she was not willing to do that, then she was willing to relocate the work.”
Pownall said he believes that Pepperdine’s community presents a rare opportunity for artists and institutions to work together.
“It’s my feeling that artists should have the ability to make whatever they want,” Pownall said. “That’s the autonomy that makes art important, is that they get to make whatever they want and institutions have the autonomy to decide what they show. This is a very unique situation because those lines are blurred. We have to work as a community to find solutions, which, when you’re out in the world, you’re not necessarily bound by the same limits that community can provide.”
Feltner said students are able to produce whatever they would like for their classes or outside work without fear of restrictions. The university is only involved when it concerns public space.
“We have never censored a work,” Feltner said. “So, I think that’s important. We have never told a student, or a faculty member for that matter, what they can or cannot produce specifically in the area of art. We do as an institution strongly affirm our responsibility to have displayed in public spaces works that are aligned with our mission and that generally conform to those values and truths that we hold dear and sincere of the mission.”
Ramos said she considers the incident to be “100 percent” censorship.
Ramos said it was never her intent to provoke people with the piece but she doesn’t think that would’ve been a bad thing.
“Provocation is not necessarily a negative thing in my mind either,” Ramos said. “It’s to spark ideas and to show people that this is something that does exist.”
Feltner said there are responsibilities that come with upholding a Christian mission.
“I want students and faculty that will relentlessly pursue the truth, that will relentlessly explore and investigate,” Feltner said. “I want them to push boundaries, if you will, to further our understanding, to evoke deep and serious consideration on matters of substance. But there are standards and lines where it’s appropriate to display some of that publicly. And so I think that’s the challenge we face, is where’s that line?”
Graphic file photo.
In 2016, the office of Student Activities told DIF member David Limon that a dance he was choreographing, which focused on LGBTQ+ relationships, would be removed from Dance in Flight. The show’s theme that year was social movements of the 1960s.
“They basically just told me that the pieces were not going to be able to be put on stage that year,” Limon said. “And that actually, that whole experience was rather nice and very much filled with love because I think all three of them individually are very tolerant and loving people … Actually, all three of them kind of cried when they told me that, which was really nice and really affirming, but the news, of course, sucked in itself.”
Limon said Student Activities offered to help him come up with something more “Pepperdine appropriate” if he wanted to continue with having pieces in the show.
“I just have told this story so many times that I believe it’s a direct quote, but I believe they said that ‘Two members of the same gender would not be able to do a romantic dance on Smothers stage, ever,” Limon said. “And so it was kind of like the donor situation.”
Pepperdine is a private, nonprofit institution. The university asks alumni, parents, students, faculty and staff to consider donating to The Pepperdine Fund, which provides resources for financial aid, new academic initiatives and faculty, according to Pepperdine’s website.
Feltner said donors do not play any part in deciding which artwork will be hosted in university spaces.
“Donors do not have any bearing on this conversation,” Feltner said. “This is a leadership conversation from senior leadership through this office to faculty and students. Donors are not engaged in that discussion.”
Dean of Students Mark Davis said miscommunications play a major role in the restrictions put on student performances.
“From my experience, most of the controversies at Pepperdine over censorship in the arts have resulted from a breakdown in communication,” Davis wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, sometimes students are caught in the middle. I encourage those who are responsible for Pepperdine-sponsored events … to have early conversations with students about what content is considered consistent with Pepperdine’s Christian mission.”
Doug Hurley, dean of Student Activities and Campus Recreation, wrote that all student organization events must be pre-approved with Student Activities. Any club that wants to hold an on- or off-campus event, advertise or use university space must first gain approval.
The Student Organization Handbook states that all events must be “suitable for family audiences.”
Hurley said university-sponsored events such as DIF and Songfest are ongoing collaborations between student leaders and staff. While these university-sponsored events are student-led, they receive funding from the university. Staff members specifically designated to work on these productions collaborate with student leaders from the beginning stages.
“There would not be a case where student leaders present a piece all done and say to staff, ‘What do you think?'” Hurley wrote in an email. “We all have been working together since the beginning. Sometimes there is give and take along the way but overall we’ve worked really well with the student leaders over the years.”
DIF’s directors and producers initially approved Limon’s dance before Student Activities informed him that it would not be included in the show.
“I think there is a discrepancy because if we were, if we did have communication the whole time, it wouldn’t be a surprise,” Limon said. “I think the surprise is what hurts the most.”
Limon turned his omitted piece into an opportunity to choreograph a new dance, a duet between a boy and an angel. For Limon, the piece was about the high suicide rates of LGBTQ+ youth and faith.
“I think ultimately I’m grateful for the censorship in that I was allowed to tell the story, the duet story,” Limon said. “It’s called the ‘Heaven Piece’ because I actually had a lot of positive feedback from that piece.”
Mossucco, a senior theatre major, said the censoring of Limon’s dance discouraged him from being open about his own sexuality.
“The takeaway from that was that I couldn’t equally be gay and be Christian at our institution because there was some indication that I was naturally unequipped to show my perspective for some reason and that perspective was offensive to whatever faith that we’re following here,” Mossucco said. “So that was a really hard blow for me.”
Feltner said the administration wants the best for students.
“We want them to be fully themselves,” Feltner said. “We want them to explore big questions and big ideas and to wrestle with challenge and to evoke deep reflection and thought from those viewing their work. But a component of a Seaver College education is the integration of faith and learning. And we want to push those student artists to engage that relationship with their faith, that relationship with God in a way that is also evident in their work.”
Pownall said he believes that art will always play an important role in challenging tradition.
“It’s important that people not just react based on their conventions,” Pownall said. “It’s important that people really, really think about how they think about art. It will help them change for the better.”
A balancing act
Rick Marrs, provost and chief academic officer, stands by Pepperdine’s affirmation statement, “That truth, having nothing to fear from investigation, should be pursued relentlessly in every discipline.”
“We really are a place where we’re about education, we’re about the free expression of ideas [with an] openness to [and] a willingness to be challenged,” Marrs said. “To have to grapple with things that not only are different from the way we see things or think [about] things but [that are] highly problematic, my sense would be it’s better to engage it than it is to try to eliminate it.”
Davis emphasized the importance of creative expression.
“The arts can help us explore truth, and we can work together to find the most appropriate forum to explore any content,” Davis wrote. “I’m thankful for the way Pepperdine promotes freedom of expression in ways that support our Christian mission to prepare students for lives of purpose, service and leadership.”
Mossucco said he believes that restrictions lead to meaningless art.
“Art loses a great deal of its significance when it’s censored because it is not honest and it is not truthful,” Mossucco said. “One of my biggest takeaways to being an artist here is that art cannot be limited if it wishes to be impactful.”
Mossucco thinks limitations on art and performance should be done away with completely.
“Art can be controversial,” Mossucco said. “Art doesn’t have to be clean-cut.”
Media Production Professor Jacob Michael said he believes that sometimes art requires controversy.
“One of the things I think you have to talk about is the purpose that art serves because on some level, I think art is meant to create conversation and sometimes the right purpose of art is to offend people, to cause them to discuss topics or to discuss issues that otherwise they wouldn’t discuss,” Michael said.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) works to defend the rights of students and faculty at universities across the country. FIRE produces annual reports detailing cases of censorship across America’s schools while considering the differences between public and private institutions. FIRE’s ranking of Pepperdine is a warning light, meaning the university hasn’t actively prohibited speech but doesn’t promise it either — placing its religious values over freedom of expression.
However, DePaul University, a private Roman Catholic school, earned a Lifetime Censorship Award from FIRE for various reports of free speech violations.
Davis wrote that religious schools should be clear about their policies.
“While supporting the right of religious schools to uphold their distinctive missions, FIRE encourages these schools to be upfront about its policies and then to honor them,” Davis wrote. “I believe this is good advice for Pepperdine.”
In any community, Pownall believes art plays an essential role in growth.
“At Pepperdine, we’re trying at least to be a community that grows together, and art has a really important role of pushing boundaries,” Pownall said. “And so it’s going to end up being on sort of the front lines of some tough conversations at times.”
Follow Haidyn Harvey on Twitter: @hayj0405