Paint, a brush and the head of a president

After going viral via Facebook and garnering national attention, associate professor Thomas Chung's painting depicting Captain America, President Donald Trump and a young Hilary Clinton sparked debate regarding freedom of expression. Photo credit: Young Kim

With the stroke of a paintbrush, controversy rises over an art piece that was presented at UAA’s facility art exhibition located in the Fine Arts Building. The “Everything” piece was created by Thomas Chung, assistant professor of painting, who has been teaching at UAA for over three years and has had his current position since last fall. This painting has brought up the question of the First Amendment and whether or not this piece is appropriate for public display.

The painting was inspired by the Greek myth of Perseus and Medusa, which is often shown in artwork with Perseus holding the head of Medusa. Actor Chris Evans, who plays Captain America, is displayed in Chung’s piece holding a protest sign in one hand and the decapitated head of President Donald Trump in the other, referencing the myth of Perseus and Medusa. However, Chung explains how his piece wasn’t necessarily about Trump, but the ugly side of American society that Trump has revealed.

The protest sign Captain America is holding has a quote by Chief Seattle from a letter he wrote to the U.S. before his tribe’s land was taken by force. The quote states, “Man did not weave the web of life. He is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web he does to himself.” Chung chose this quote carefully and if given opportunity for Trump to read his protest sign, this is what he would want it to say.

Hilary Clinton is also present in this painting, shown as her younger self, clinging onto the hero’s leg to represent how America views women. Chung wanted to make fun of how princesses are portrayed as weak and needing saving by an almighty hero.

In the background, there is a scene of a buffalo fall, a technique used to hunt buffalo by herding them off a cliff. On one of the dead buffalo, there is a graffiti tag that says ‘Make America White Again,’ a slogan that was seen around the U.S. after the election.

This painting was started as a way for Chung to express his feelings after the outcome of the presidential election.

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“The painting ‘Everything’ came out of my feelings after the election last year, I felt that Trump stood for misogyny, racism, homophobia and xenophobia. When he was elected, I mourned for the death of my belief that we as a society had made progress in those societal attitudes,” Chung said. “His winning revealed to me a huge segment of the population that still believed in hate, and hated what I — and the people that I love — are.”

For about a month, the painting has been displayed without any complaints before it went viral after a Facebook post. This started a debate on freedom of expression and whether or not this painting should be protected under the university. Tom Case, UAA Chancellor, released a statement concerning the piece.

“We understand that some may not support this exhibit, but universities — including UAA — are a place for free exchange of ideas, diversity of thoughts and of opinions, and ideally, a place for conversation to occur around our differences and similarities. Fre​edom of expression is fundamental to our mission and we support our faculty and students in exploring their ideas through creativity, research and scholarship,” Case said.

Students are bittersweet about UAA’s decision to keep the painting up until the scheduled take down date, Thursday, April 20. It is questioned whether or not freedom of expression applies to professors.

“I do not believe this ‘painting’ falls under freedom of expression. Professors are not paid to make political statements, they are paid to teach. Freedom of expression applies to individuals, not universities that accept public funding,” Jarod Grice, mechanical engineering major, said.

While freedom of expression for students is important, some believe that outspoken political views, especially from a professor, is unprofessional.

“Personal politics do not belong in institutions of learning, period. It should be a place of acceptance and tolerance for people of all beliefs and political stance, respect given to all, not just the ones that those in power agree with,” Rachel Yoncher, psychology major, said. “It is their job to teach their students how to express what they feel and figure it out for themselves and give them the courage to do so, not to give themselves a platform to push their own.”

An issue with the university supporting the painting by keeping it up until the end of the exhibition is that some feel that this reflects UAA’s political beliefs.

“What’s most surprising to me is that UAA allowed this professor to display this painting, appearing as if UAA shares the same political views. It’s embarrassing to be attending a university that encourages staff to reveal their political affiliations to students,” Grice said. “Professor Chung can now be added to the growing list of incompetent professors employed by UAA, in a situation like this I can only say what I believe Donald Trump would say: ‘What a disgrace.’”

This is not the first time there has been controversial political artwork on campus. The “Everything” piece, along with other political pieces have been displayed and supported by the university.

“I would be really disappointed in UAA if they censored artwork, and this is not the only artwork on campus to focus Trump in a negative light, the same of Obama when he was in office. People have a political voice, and in true artist form you can see that expression all over the Fine Arts Building,” Kayla Anaya, painting major, said.

The discussion about the painting being displayed has brought up the topic of censorship. If UAA had decided to take down the piece, some question how that would impact future decisions on controversial work and conversations on campus.

“It does come down to the First Amendment and this should be a place where these kinds of conversations should happen, if I was asked to take it down, where do we draw the line? And what kind of a place would this be if the university could decide what’s appropriate and what’s not or what even a student can say or talk about?” Chung said.

College can be seen as a sacred place where discussions on controversial topics can take place in a safe manner. Expressing different viewpoints are encouraged for both professors and students to form their opinions in a respectful way.

“I won’t say if I personally agree or disagree with the paintings content, but it is the right of the professor and any student to display their beliefs in a way that doesn’t inflict physical harm on another, and when that happens, it is my right to engage in discussion about it, whether it be for or against the topic,” Clarissa Kyselov, anthropology major, said. “No one, including faculty on campus and the public off campus, should be allowed to take away that right or shut down an opposing viewpoint.”

UAA’s decision to keep the painting up has shown that professors and students freedom of expression is protected on campus.

“I hope what students take away from this is that no matter where they fall, college and UAA will be supportive, I know I can speak for this department that we will foster everyone’s point of views no matter what and I think that’s such an important part of this program,” Chung said. “If anything else, I hope that students just know that they should be brave if they believe in something that they can speak up about it here and they’ll be supported.”

Although the “Everything” painting was taken down on April 20, the discussion of the painting has gone national. Chung has been receiving nonstop emails and phone calls since his painting went viral. Through the death threats and name calling, Chung has also received great support for painting what he believed in. At UAA, academic freedom for professors and students is supported by the administration.

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