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Bonesteel Affair- allegations refuted in Chicago

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In Chicago, Outsider Art Expert Michael Bonesteel, Feeling School Officials' Pressure, Resigns Longtime Teaching Position

Complaints from students in classes taught by Bonesteel led to the school's reduction of his teaching workload -- and to his decision to resign from his teaching post.

Claims that SAIC discriminated against Outsider Art and banned Outsider Art texts have been refuted, and the school says it has not censored the content of Bonesteel’s courses.


Following complaints filed against him by three students in his courses at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago who objected to the content or themes of certain books or other materials that had been assigned for study or that had emerged in class discussions in the recent past, and the manner in which they had been presented, adjunct professor Michael Bonesteel, a long-serving SAIC teacher and specialist in the history of comics and the history of outsider art, has submitted his resignation to the school’s administrators.

Bonesteel has informed Raw Vision that, in the aftermath of the students’ complaints, “the restrictions the school imposed on the way I could present certain material had a chilling effect — to the degree that I probably would have considered not presenting such material at all, because I felt that I already had been careful about presenting this material in the past. This led me to suspect that, in truth, certain students had not just been offended by the way I presented the material but had also been offended by the material itself.”

A respected scholar in the outsider art field, Bonesteel is perhaps best known for his in-depth research on the life and art of Henry Darger, the legendary, Chicago-based recluse. His landmark book, Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, was published by Rizzoli in 2000.
Bonesteel began teaching in SAIC’s department of art history, theory and criticism in 2003. SAIC, one of the most distinguished art schools in the United States, is affiliated with the Art Institute of Chicago, the home of some of the world’s finest collections of art from different cultures and eras.

Last December, during a class session in one of Bonesteel’s outsider art courses, in which the work of Henry Darger was being discussed, a transgender student objected to Bonesteel’s presentation of a theory holding that the well-known outsider artist might have been sexually abused as a child, and that his later depictions in his art of naked little girls with male genitals might be related in some way to such a childhood experience. (Such an explanation of Darger’s girls with male genitals is commonly seen to recognise a pathology in Darger, which is reflected in his art.)

In a recent written interview, Bonesteel told Raw Vision that, during that class session, the student who objected to the subject matter under discussion (and who later filed a written complaint against him) “said there was no proof that Darger was sexually abused and, therefore, that I was wrong in proposing [such a] theory”. Bonesteel told the student, in reply, that although no firm evidence exists to prove that Darger was sexually abused as a child, based on their research, numerous scholars specialising in the study of Darger’s life and art do believe that it is very likely that the artist, who grew up in poverty and in Victorian-era institutions, and who died in 1973 after living as a reclusive loner throughout his adult life, had been sexually abused during his childhood.

Bonesteel explains that subsequently, on his own initiative, he met with SAIC’s director of academic affairs for diversity and inclusion, who suggested that he post some background material regarding the Darger-pathology theory on a school-sponsored website on which students, teachers and administrators could share announcements, class syllabuses and other communications. There, with his class’s recent discussion of Darger’s life story and the unusual images in some of his artworks in mind, Bonesteel posted information about the condition that is now known as “gender dysphoria” (formerly known as “gender identity disorder”), in which a person experiences feelings of distress stemming from a conflict between his or her biological sex or assigned gender and the gender with which he or she identifies. On that school-operated website, Bonesteel also posted what he has called “an apology to the student who felt offended, saying that I should have treated the subject with more delicacy”.

In his SAIC website post, he also wrote: “I will make every attempt to improve my approach to this subject in the future. Having said this, however, does not deny the importance of considering all the possibilities in Darger's case. The idea that Darger might have identified as a transgender individual is a new one to me, but now it seems yet one more possibility. We are in the realm of conjecture regarding Darger's sexual abuse as well. There is no proof, but there are many signs that indicate that this might have occurred over the course of his institutional upbringing.”

Did the student who objected to Bonesteel’s presentation of a pathology-oriented theory to explain the appearance of intersex children in Darger’s art do so because, among some transgender people, the linking of sexual abuse in a causal way with their transgender nature is a way of thinking they soundly reject?

In a separate incident that took place during SAIC’s fall 2017 semester, during a class session in one of Bonesteel’s history-of-comics courses, another student spoke critically about what he perceived to be the anti-Jewish attitude of the author of a textbook that course’s participants had been assigned to read. Bonesteel told Raw Vision, recalling that class session’s heated discussion, that the student who spoke up went on “to unload criticisms of SAIC’s policies toward minorities and transgender students specifically, levelling accusations of racism and homophobia toward me in particular.”

Bonesteel also recalled, “Later, we moved into a discussion of Alan Moore’s graphic novelette, The Killing Joke, which involves an implied rape scene. When I said the word ‘rape’, the complaining student yelled, ‘Hey, where’s the trigger warning?’ A little exasperated by that point, since I had already received a long tongue-lashing [from] this student, I remarked, ‘Really? You want a trigger warning for the word “rape”?’ He says that this was later construed by the faculty dean as ‘ridiculing the student when they [sic] requested trigger warnings’.”

Bonesteel, who had used similar reading materials in his courses in past years, had never received what he called “negative reactions” to them before.

(In the U.S., primarily in response to the pressures of so-called politically correct attitudes that have emerged from the political left and have been nurtured by the proscriptions of postmodernist critical theory, whose influence has become deeply entrenched in American academia, many colleges and universities now routinely advise or require teachers to issue “trigger warnings”. These are notices to prospective or currently enrolled students in their courses informing them that some might find certain topics that appear in assigned readings or that might come up in class discussions to be objectionable. Such advisories are intended to prevent potentially sensitive students from becoming upset or offended by even the mention of a subject to which they might object, even if such a reference appears in a text or work of art that was produced in social, cultural, historical, political or economic circumstances different from those with which a potentially offended student would be familiar.)

Bonesteel told Raw Vision: “SAIC does not have any policy about trigger warnings and does not require them. [...] I made announcements verbally in classes prior to the classes in which we would view and discuss sensitive [material or] issues, but of course, sometimes there was no time to do so during spontaneous class discussions.”

Altogether, in response to these two separate, in-class incidents, three of Bonesteel’s students submitted written complaints about him to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s dean of faculty, Lisa Wainwright.

In an e-mail message to Wainwright, Raw Vision asked her if, in response to the complaints against Bonesteel, SAIC conducted any kind of open-to-the-public (at least open to the school's faculty members, staff and students) hearing, review or examination of the teacher’s alleged wrongdoings. She did not respond specifically to that question.

Following the filing of the students’ complaints, Bonesteel spoke with the chairman of SAIC’s department of art history, theory and criticism, who advised him, Bonesteel recalled in his own letter to Wainwright, “to issue a general warning in [my] class syllabuses about offensive material and urge students who are sensitive to such things to think carefully about enrolling. I did this in my syllabuses for the spring 2017 semester’s classes. This resulted in a number of students dropping the courses. My comics classes contain unavoidable, historical material that is racist and sexist, and I always identify it as such.”

Several SAIC students who had taken Bonesteel’s courses, as well as a number of his faculty colleagues, expressed their support for him to the school’s administration. Nevertheless, in response to the complaints that had been filed against him, Bonesteel told Raw Vision, “There was no attempt at mediation. The faculty liaison who interviewed me numerous times and submitted her findings to the dean of faculty informed me that attempts at reconciliation between professors and complaining LGBT students have failed in the past, because the mandate of LGBT students is one of zero tolerance. For example, if a professor mistakenly and/or unintentionally uses the pronoun ‘she’ in reference to a transgender person who identifies as male, that professor, according to the mandate, is committing an act of sexual discrimination and harassment. In other words, ignorance of the ‘law’ is no excuse.”

Bonesteel explained that SAIC’s administrators cancelled the comics courses he was scheduled to teach during the 2017-2018 academic year and informed him that he would not be asked to teach any comics courses in the future. With regard to his outsider art courses, they cautioned him about the manner in which certain subjects should be presented in his classes.

Raw Vision asked Wainwright to respond to several questions regarding the two in-class incidents and their subsequent complaints from students. Although she did not respond one by one to those specific questions, on behalf of SAIC, she sent the magazine a brief statement, which said, in part: “The School of the Art Institute of Chicago embraces the presentation and discussion of the full range of artistic expression. Academic freedom is an essential part of our mission to deliver an excellent global arts education. We are also proud to maintain an environment in which everyone in our community is treated with respect.” In a second e-mail message, the dean stated: “[I]Individual expression is at our core and we prize academic freedom. This situation is not an example of censorship and, in fact, censorship is anathema to our pedagogy.”

Although Bonesteel’s teaching load was reduced, Wainwright noted in her first statement: “We have every intention of continuing to offer courses on outsider art and comics, as we have for many years. This is an important part of the school’s curriculum. We will also continue to support projects and course work with the rich outsider art holdings in the Roger Brown Study Collection.”

Bonesteel has said that what he called “the chilling effect” of the SAIC’s administration’s restrictions on how he could present certain subject matter in his classes, combined with the reduced workload he was facing after the cancellation of his comics courses (a reduction that would prevent him from qualifying for school-funded health-insurance coverage) compelled him to resign from his teaching position. His resignation becomes effective later this summer.

The incidents that transpired at SAIC, leading to the school’s reducing of Bonesteel’s teaching workload and, ultimately, to his decision to resign his post, raise several interesting questions about such issues as censorship (actual censorship or merely the appearance of censorship) and the long-standing tradition of academic freedom on American college and university campuses. They also point to this question, which might not have an easy answer: Do the recent events at SAIC in effect pit a teacher’s right to free speech against a school’s legal obligation to “protect" students against discrimination in the form of unwanted exposure to information, ideas, statements or ideas they might find to be objectionable or offensive?


report by Edward M. Gomèz

Senior Editor, Raw Vision