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the morally correct thing, which then allows room for the art of the steamrolled. Except, again, nothing is so simple. Despite what you’ve heard about cancel culture, there is no zero-sum outcome. As the Boston Globe’s Ty Burr once wrote, squaring good Cosby with bad: “We all agreed on Bill Cosby. We all pretty much agree on him now, for entirely different reasons.” Someday we may reconcile our two Cosbys. But not for a while.
Which is particularly tough arithmetic for an art student.
“A part of the experience of art school is understanding where you can cross the line,” said Vanessa Payne, an SAIC sophomore currently in Favorite’s class. “Controversy in contemporary art is a part of your education, so figuring out that line and what it looks like is also part of the art world. Eileen gives us a comfortable space to discuss this.”
The class, usually, is about 20 students, many of them female. The majority, Favorite assumes, stand firmly to the left ideologically, this being an art school and all. Yet at times their arguments, in a different era, might have been sounded pretty conservative.
During one class I attended, Favorite held up a copy of Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar.” “There is attempted rape in this book. I might say I’m not letting my kids read it. But should it have a label: ‘This writer is problematic, This work is potentially offensive’?”
Is that so wrong? A student asked.
So just let labels dictate what is problematic? Favorite asked.
Well, it doesn’t have to be a big label, the student said.
Favorite visibly cringed and moved on.
As a writer herself, the discussion left her unsettled. Then again, that same student later told me that Favorite was her best teacher, that no one was a smarter navigator of the “cognitive dissonance” in art school. Indeed, across the three semesters I dipped in and out of the course, student arguments for problematic behavior — why Hemingway is an monster, why Tarantino is a racist, et al — sometimes sounded like Comedy Central’s “Drunk History,” muddled, contradictory, yet full of insights. Their stumbling didn’t make them wrong. It just sounded like learning. Favorite would tell them, as a writer, she likes conflict, “but your tweet, and the tweets of 3,000 others, are not evidence in this class.”