Students and faculty members came together at an open forum on Tuesday, Oct. 2 to discuss the controversy surrounding artist Richard Kern being invited to campus as a guest speaker for the art department.
A group of at least 20 students and art faculty members gathered in SU 100 to discuss the reasons why Kern was chosen by the Student Art Alliance (SAA) to be a guest speaker this semester. The choice to invite Kern to campus has been met with criticism by faculty, who believe Kern’s work — which often depicts human sexuality — to be problematic.
According to the artist’s website, Kern “has sought to unravel and illuminate the complex and often darker sides of human nature.” Art professor Ann Lovett said she was unsure why students in the art department decided to select Kern as a guest speaker due to the nature of his work.
“I find the work really offensive,” Lovett said. “I think it objectifies women and it glorifies rape. It perpetuates images of women that we have seen for decades in soft porn and hard porn.”
Kern’s photographs, which have been featured in Vice, GQ and Playboy, are often of naked women. Photography major Kelly Surdo said all of Kern’s models contact him first and ask him to take their picture.
She also said Kern’s photos have had a positive impact on her artwork and on herself.
“As an artist, I don’t see Richard Kern as much as I see the women he’s photographing who I’m more fascinated with,” Surdo said. “Seeing them in his artwork brought about a sense of confidence in myself.”
Several students at the forum said they believed part of the controversy is because Kern is a male artist predominantly working with female models. However, Surdo said Kern has also worked with male models in simlar situations as his female models, “but that isn’t the artwork galleries want from him.”
First-year painting MFA Maria Rigden said she wasn’t particularly struck by the work and said she doesn’t believe the work is meant to be overtly sexual.
“Many times when we see male artists taking photos of women with other women, they’re made to be very sexual,” Rigden said. “When I saw these photos, I thought they were a very boring way of looking at lesbian life and culture, and I kind of appreciated that.”
Fourth-year Art Major Kelly Novak said the controversy around Kern’s work throughout his career is something she hopes he will discuss when he comes to campus, and that he will also discuss how he balances his artwork.
“I think what is most exciting is to have him come to campus and talk about this controversy,” Novak said. “I’m interested in hearing how he balances his fine art and commercial art.”
Surdo said even though there are disagreements about whether or not his work is offensive and who it is offensive to, it is important to maintain an open and honest dialogue about Kern’s visit.
“I think it really shows an important step for us as an academic community that we’re having this talk,” she said. “I think it’s good that we aren’t willing to just say there’s a controversy and write it off, but that we are able to sit down and have a conversation about it.”
Kern will be visiting the campus on Wednesday, Oct. 23.