8.28.17 | Dear Students: Charlottesville
As I sat down earlier this month to prepare my annual back to school message to you – usually just a brief note of encouragement and celebration – our country was struck by the alarming events in Charlottesville, Virginia, that took a tragic turn.
At first, I thought that Virginia is far from us; it’s not Ohio – it’s a different world. But then reports soon made it clear that there were, unfortunately, multiple Ohio connections, that white supremacists from all over the U.S. had chosen this site and this moment to make a statement, and that good people, also from many places, chose Charlottesville to take a stand against racism, white supremacy, and fascism.
I want to make it clear that I find the racism at the heart of this battle unacceptable, and I do not think that should be a partisan statement. Columbus College of Art & Design is a place where people of all races, religions, genders, sexual orientations, abilities, and nations should feel welcome. And we will not tolerate bigotry in any form.
However, as an art historian and president of an art and design college, I was also struck by the centrality of art and design. The lightning rod that ignited this fire was a sculpture. The protests hinged on recognition of the iconography associated with various groups and identities.
I do not believe that removing a sculpture erases the history of which it speaks. I support the removal of confederate monuments – many of which were erected decades after the Civil War as a blatant attempt to reassert white power in the Jim Crow era. While the history is not erased with removal, perhaps some of that ideology will be. This is why we value the humanistic basis of our education. Learning art and design skills is critical, but we also insist on understanding the context, the history, the science, and the meaning of making.
As artists, designers, creators, we must recognize the power of symbols and artworks to not only reflect the political and cultural moment but to actually create a movement.
The banning of swastikas in Germany speaks to the continued power of this Nazi symbol; tearing down statues of Stalin in Russia was part of ending Soviet control; Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial poignantly and politically symbolized a nation's grief at the loss of thousands of soldiers' lives without glorifying war; Gilbert Baker's rainbow flag design galvanized the gay rights movement; and, millions of knitted pink hats introduced by Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman turned the Women's March on Washington from a one-day event into a global and long-lasting statement.
What does all this mean for you as a student at CCAD? What we do here is develop the artists and designers of tomorrow. Art and design schools have historically been sites of inclusivity and venues for important conversations. At CCAD, this is enshrined in our institutional values and publicly stated commitments to diversity as well as academic freedom.
My challenge to you is to consider the cultural and political impact of your creations, for your work will affect the world regardless of medium and whether or not you intend it. After all, those activists tearing down statues of Stalin were also wearing Levi's as a symbol of American values.
My best wishes for your year ahead include creative and academic success, memorable friendships, healthy choices, and nothing less lofty than world-changing ideas that will positively affect your community.
Whether this year is your first or last at CCAD, I hope you will each ask yourself how you will visually define the next movement. What will you create to stand on the empty statue pedestals now filling our communities?
In creativity and solidarity,
President Melanie Corn