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Saul Levine. Photo: Dartmouth College.

Filmmaker Saul Levine Leaves MassArt Following Dispute over Artwork

Longtime professor Saul Levine, whom scholar P. Adams Sitney called “one of the most underrated filmmakers in the American avant-garde cinema,” claims he is being pushed out of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design after administrators accused him of “harming students” by showing his film Notes After Long Silence, 1989, to his senior thesis class.

In an impassioned Facebook Live video that was posted on Thursday, March 29, Levine announced that after nearly four decades at the school, he was forced into early retirement when students complained about the work’s graphic content, which includes footage of Levine and his partner naked and having sex. According to Levine, he chose to play the piece, which uses sex and intimacy as metaphors to address issues such as gender representation and power dynamics, and his film Big Stick / An Old Reel, 1973, to aid a discussion about film editing.

Shortly after the class, Levine received emails from Lyssa Palu-ay, the interim provost; the head of the school’s human resources department; and Courtney Wilson, the director and Title IX coordinator (Title IX of the Higher Education Amendment of 1972 prohibits discrimination and harassment, as well as retaliation, on the basis of sex in education programs and activities) requesting to meet with him about his fall production class. Levine said that he was not informed of what was going to be discussed.

Levine said that when he and his union representative met with the administrators he was ambushed: “What they did was beat me up for an hour. They berated me about the safety of students, and why I was harming them.” He added that the executives were acting like “thugs, buffoons, [and] secret policemen who were attacking me as an artist, as an educational professional, as a programmer, but mainly as an artist.”

Levine also cited a former legal complaint against him—he was allegedly accused of teaching gay pornography—but said that the school and its lawyers successfully fought it. In response to the current dispute over the artwork, Levine said that the controversy is part of a larger, national problem. He explained that the discussion about abusive authority and sexual harassment on campus is a good thing, but that it is also giving rise to a “policing” of curricula.

“We are seeing an attack on academic freedom by the agency of the students. They are being infantilized. They are being told that only the least objectionable can be talked about or shown.” He added, “We’re in a bad moment.”

The complaints against Levine were anonymous, and the number received by the school is unknown. Levine argues that the school officials he met with had condemned him before the meeting took place. He also declared that he was unable to properly defend himself and that he felt inhibited by a medical condition that causes tremors and affects his speech. While it is unclear whether MassArt threatened Levine with legal action, the artist said that he ultimately chose to step down rather than face the legal fees he would accumulate if he tried to fight the school.

Last Thursday, MassArt released a “Campus Climate Update” to students and staff that stressed the school's committment to ensuring a “healthy living and learning environment.” This campus-wide letter came shortly after Nicholas Nixon retired, following allegations of sexual harassment made against him.

After Levine posted the video on Facebook, the arts community has rallied in his defense. The New York–based filmmaker Joel Neville Anderson, a Ph.D. candidate in visual and cultural studies at the University of Rochester, wrote on Twitter that the school’s actions were “chilling” and urged teachers to show his works. Denise O’Malley, a MassArt alumnus and supervisor at Harvard University’s Fine Arts Library, called MassArt’s treatment of Levine “outrageous” and “cowardly.” MassArt could not immediately be reached for comment.

In the May 2007 issue of Artforum, Sitney discusses several of Levine’s works. He wrote: “Only in the past decade has New York’s Anthology Film Archives devoted occasional programs to him. Yet if someone were to write a critical history of the avant-garde cinema in Boston . . . Levine would be its hero.”

[Update:]

In response to artforum.com’s requests for comment, David P. Nelson, the president of MassArt, provided the following statement:

“Professor Levine remains employed at MassArt and is expected to continue through the semester. As an art and design college, academic freedom and creative expression are essential to MassArt’s mission. We believe that freedom and creativity thrive on a campus where students, faculty, and staff respect the dignity  of one another and practice collegiality. When respect and collegiality are stifled, both freedom and creativity suffer.”

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