“I know it when I see it.” Potter Stewart, the late Supreme Court justice, famously used that phrase in writing about obscenity. Others might use it to describe art. Danny Guthrie, an associate professor of art at Michigan State University, is the latest to learn that one person’s art may strike others as pornography.
Ever since The State News, the student paper at Michigan State, published an article about Guthrie’s unconventional photography earlier this month, he has been the subject of a debate at the university and elsewhere over photographs that show him with former students and colleagues, in various stages of undress, enacting sexually charged (and sometimes classical) scenes. The article said it was prompted in part by the rumours that circulate among students about the photographs and about who is asked to pose.
The university has defended the professor’s right to artistic and academic freedom, and said that the photographs do not raise any issues of professional conduct. And the university has described as inaccurate news reports stating that the professor was told by Michigan State to stop taking nude photographs of his students.
There are several examples of Guthrie’s photography on his website, some of which show him and others not fully dressed. (Some critics have noted that other photographs he has produced feature subjects wearing even less clothing.)
Guthrie – who has taught at Michigan State for 13 years, and at Ithaca College for 20 years before that – has had his work in numerous museum exhibits. He has stopped giving interviews, but he has posted an explanation of his philosophy about his photographs on his page on the Michigan State website.
“Certainly subject matter such as this is politically charged. In the last couple of decades many female artists have investigated the personal landscape of their sexuality, as a means to seize control of their own representation within a culture milieu whose imaging of women has a long track record of idealization and exploitation. Taking my cue from this work, through direct and indirect references to classical painting and photography, my intent is to acknowledge these various traditions and debates, twisting and blurring the codes of classical aesthetics, contemporary rhetorically motivated art, and even erotica,” he writes.
“In particular, I want the viewer to know I am investigating a history and practice of representation where the roles of viewer and viewed, seducer and object of seduction, are examined and perturbed. In short, I hope to move beyond simplistic notions of viewer and victim, exploring the possibility of a complicated exchange of power that informs the way these pictures come about.”
The people who pose with him are “current and former students, colleagues, friends and acquaintances”, he writes. “Such collaboration involves considerable risk-taking and trust. The images do not mean I have this or that fantasy about a particular individual or situation, but they do explore emotions that I – and I assume most others – have felt.”
While Guthrie primarily offers artistic reasons for his work, he also writes that it would be “evasive not to acknowledge that some of my interests are purely personal”. He explains that “I have reached a not entirely pleasant place in life one might call the fulcrum of middle age, with the balance shifting inexorably towards decrepitude. As one ages, it is with no small sense of remorse and regret that one comes to experience the realm of desire, romance, and carnality as existing more in the past than the future.”
At Michigan State, some students have asked Guthrie to stop using students in his art. Mitch Goldsmith, one student, writes in The State News that many of the photographs show the female figure appearing dead or immobile as the professor’s character stands over her or observes her.
“The women’s bodies, pacified and disempowered through death, are juxtaposed with the professor’s as he stands, sits or in some way inserts himself over the bodies of the women. He – virile, powerful and masculine – and they – disempowered, silenced and feminine. In this way, these photographs are not new but depict patriarchal sexual relations dating back millennia. The disempowerment of his female counterparts is the empowerment of himself, the triumph of masculinity over the feminine,” Goldsmith writes.
Goldsmith concludes: “The supposed right for one in power (a senior male professor) to photograph someone naked with little power (his female students) is abusive and unacceptable.”
Other students have come to Guthrie’s defence. One column notes that there has been no evidence that any of those who posed with Guthrie were anything other than willing volunteers, and that different people use art to explore sexuality in different ways. Suggesting that female students who pose must be victims of the photographer suggests that they are “helpless” people who can’t make their own decisions, writes Jameson Joyce.
Via email, Heather C. Swain, interim vice-president of university relations at Michigan State, says that the university had examined the process by which Guthrie identified models and believed that there were no problems.
“Sometimes art, and the means by which it is expressed, evokes strong responses – both for and against it. In situations where the art relates to an academic activity, MSU’s main concern is to maintain the integrity of the teaching and learning environment. The chair of the Department of Art, Art History and Design has reviewed this matter and has determined that an effective protocol is in place to assure that no student feels pressured to participate in Professor Guthrie’s photography,” Swain writes. “Professor Guthrie does not recruit students currently enrolled in his classes to model for photographs. All models who choose to participate, whether they are members of the MSU community or the community at large, do so on a voluntary basis. Volunteers determine the extent of their participation and approve the final photographs.”
Swain said that the university has not asked Guthrie (as some press reports have suggested) to stop using nude students in his photography. “While we understand the shock value of Professor Guthrie’s art, it is not sexual harassment and does not violate university policies. Whether students, as adults, choose to model for him is not something the university can or should control,” Swain said.
She added that the university has never received a complaint from anyone who posed for Guthrie.