Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Retirement as performance art? 

There is a story of two faculty members, husband and wife art professors at UCLA, who resigned from their posts because the university did not punish a student who used a handgun in a performance piece.

In the brief performance on Nov. 29, the student appeared to point a loaded handgun at his head and pull the trigger, a student and law enforcement officials told the Los Angeles Times.

The weapon didn't fire, but after the student left the room a noise that sounded like a gunshot was heard outside.

Police said no one was hurt and it wasn't known if the firearm was real. Prosecutors said there wasn't enough evidence for charges, said Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office.

According to a separate report in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscribers):

Several students apparently were frightened, and believed he had killed himself or someone else. Mr. Deutch (the student -- kb) subsequently walked back into the classroom, his performance piece apparently concluded.

Robert J. Naples, dean of students at UCLA, said counselors and other university officials had talked to Mr. Deutch just after the incident and decided to continue allowing him to attend classes after determining that he was not dangerous to himself or others. Mr. Deutch turned in a fake gun to the dean's office and said it was the one he had used in the classroom, said Nancy Greenstein, a spokeswoman for the campus police.

The professor for this class had done performance art with guns as well back in the 1970s,

Mr. Burden's own well-known performance piece, "Shoot," was considered one of the most provocative and controversial of the 1970s. A friend shot Mr. Burden in the arm from 13 feet away. Mr. Burden pointed out that the performance had taken place in a private art gallery, not a classroom. And, he said, times have changed.

"That was 33 years ago," he said. "Columbine has happened, 9/11 has happened. There are restrictions." Mr. Burden, who now focuses on sculpture rather than shocking performance pieces, said, "I've moved forward. I've changed, too."

"If this young man wanted to go and rent a loft downtown and play Russian roulette, he in my mind could do that, and the art world would decide whether he was an interesting artist or not," he continued. "That's completely different than doing it in a classroom and terrorizing 27 people."

If this had happened to some young art professor I might have a little more sympathy for his or her pique at the performance, but given the fellow's own history, couldn't he have anticipated that someone might wish to riff his own work? Were there any restrictions on this in the class syllabus or assignment? Had there been a classroom discussion?

Eugene Volokh thinks these are just weird people. I think it's entirely possible that the retirement is part of some other performance, but to which audience?