At the end of last semester, they submitted a petition to President Morton O. Schapiro and Provost Catharine "Cappy" Hill, asking that the painting be removed or that other artwork also be displayed there to offer a counter-narrative to the piece.
Forum on painting
Last week, a forum organized by philosophy professor Steven B. Gerrard was held on campus to discuss the matter, but a decision on what to do about the painting, if anything, has yet to be reached by the college, said James G. Kolesar, director of public affairs at Williams.
According to the Williams Record, the students' petition states the painting's "portrayal of African-Americans is highly offensive" because the only dark figure in it is depicted as being servile. The painting also is offensive to women, according to the petition, because most of them are "hyper-sexualized" and "in some state of nudity."
The work, "The Carnival of Life," painted by Dutch-American artist Herman Rosse in the 1930s, portrays characters from Italian comedy and Greek mythology. About 10 feet by 10 feet in size, among the painting's figures are a dark-skinned character about three inches tall holding a tray of gold coins and a naked woman.
"So much of this is really a matter of interpretation," said Gerrard. "A lot of the controversy evolves around this dark figure."
That figure, he said, could be interpreted in two ways.
"Some people interpret it as a stereotypical African-American woman/Aunt Jemima character and others interpret it as a Nubian male slave," said Gerrard.
The petition was written by Andrew Lazarow, a 21-year-old student in performance studies, and was supported by a varied group 43 students, most of whom study theater and dance at Williams.
"A lot of people brought up the parallels between the African figure and minstrel shows and how that offended them," said Lazarow.
Also at issue with the students is that the space where the painting hangs appears to be custom designed for the artwork. The painting was chosen before the building was completed, said Lazarow.
"It being the only work in the room makes it seem to a lot of people like a logo for the department and/or the building," Lazarow said.
Said Kolesar, "Students who said that they worked in the building a lot said that its prominence and its point of singularity give it a weight that it wouldn't otherwise have."
He said students at the forum suggested that other artwork be displayed in the lobby as well, and that a label further explaining the painting be posted.
Lazarow said the description posted by the painting is not correct.
"It describes this Italian form of comedy called 'Commedia dell' Arte," said Lazarow. "A lot of the students who signed the petition, including myself, took a class on that last year. Part of what it says about Commedia is just inaccurate."
Kolesar said in addition to the likelihood that more art would be added to the space, "There will be attempts to help people read that painting."
It eventually also may be displayed on a rotating basis.
"Who knows what kind of art is going to be there in the future," Kolesar said.
While most students Lazarow has talked to said they would support the rotation of art in the space, other students feel that removing the painting permanently would be the better solution, he said.
"One African-American student who's a friend of mine brought it up best when he said that if he wasn't already doing work in the theater department and he saw that painting he would not want to work with them," said Lazarow. "It doesn't want to make you go there if you're (in) that minority group."
Gerrard said he would be disappointed if nothing happened as a result of the forum. He organized the forum at the request of Thomas Kohut, dean of the faculty. Gerrard recently taught a course on the meaning of a work of art.
"The dean of the faculty came to me in September and said that he wanted to turn this into a teachable moment, which I thought was a good idea," said Gerrard.
"(Lazarow) was very thoughtful, and it was a thoughtful discussion," said Kolesar of forum, which was attended by about 60 people. Some were graduate students in art history in the program Williams offers at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.
The painting was donated in 1986 to the college by the artist's children. It previously hung in Chapin Library.
Karen Gardner can be reached at email@example.com.