But is it art?
A debate over what constitutes art — and what is too offensive to put on public display — boiled over at Salt Lake Community College on Tuesday when an angry student took down photographs depicting Mormon missionaries in sexually intimate situations.
The black and white photographs, by Westminster College graduate Don Farmer, are part of a group exhibition by gay, lesbian and transgendered artists at SLCC’s South City Campus at 1575 S. State St. Signs posted throughout the show warn: “Caution: The art you are about to witness is the feelings that are portrayed by that artist and not of SLCC.”
Farmer’s photographs show two young men in white shirts and dark slacks. One wears a missionary name tag. In one image, a young man unbuttons another’s shirt; in another, one undoes the other’s belt as a book of scripture lies open nearby.
On Tuesday, the first day of the annual Pride Art Show, students got into a shouting match after one of them began taking down Farmer’s photographs. Police were called and the photographs re-hung. Police lingered as students on both sides vented their feelings.
Farmer was raised LDS, he said in a telephone interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. As a homosexual man growing up in the faith, he says, he felt he belonged to two worlds that could not coexist.
The two men in the pictures are returned missionaries who became a couple, Farmer said. Like him, they struggled with their identity.
“It’s real. It’s life. It’s something that maybe you haven’t experienced, but someone else has,” he said. “I’m so touched when someone comes to me and says, ‘That’s how I felt for so many years.’ “
But some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints feel Farmer’s photographs are an assault on their sacred beliefs.
“They’re attacking the LDS Church with images of sexual activity. We want it displayed somewhere else, but they don’t see our views,” said SLCC student JoAnna Johannesen, who is a member of the church. “They don’t want their rights violated, but what about my rights?”
On the other hand, student Carrie Eardley loves the show. More than that, “I love that they’re not censoring it. I was damn pleased this morning. It made my day.”
Farmer hopes his pictures get people talking about difficult issues surrounding religion and sexuality.
“The purpose behind the imagery was kind of to come to terms with a lot of what I was dealing with,” he said. “In a way I was trying to bring those two realms together within an 8×10 frame.”
Students believe the debate reflects national and local arguments over homosexuality’s place in American culture.
“I don’t necessarily support [the photographs], but I support the right to free speech,” said Kathleen Tedford, a member of the college’s student board. “I think this makes people awaken and realize everything in life is just not perfect. It’s going to happen — being an issue — until they face it . . . These issues aren’t addressed enough.”
The exhibit has been moved from a lobby area to a classroom space, said Joy Tlou, the college’s public relations director, but it will stay up through Friday.
“Colleges are meeting places for ideas and concepts, and sometimes they’re controversial,” Tlou said. “In this case, the college is interested in discussing what comes next.”