A painting from the renowned contemporary Dutch painter Rein Dool has been removed from a wall at Leiden University in the Netherlands after the objection that it depicts only white men. Political Science PHD candidate Elina Zonina said that the painting of white men smoking cigars made her feel uncomfortable. According to Dutch News, Zonina insisted that the school needed to add an “ironic or critical” note with such a painting. In the meantime, it is now turned toward the wall to avoid harming or offending anyone else at the school.
We have seen similar actions in the United States where one or a small number of objectors result in the removal of paintings, material or postings at universities. Few faculty are willing to risk the ire of protesters by opposing such actions.
Joanne van der Leun, a professor of criminology and dean of Leiden Law School, reported the action at Leiden:
According to other reports the famed 90-year-old painter Rein Dool is irate over the move, which he called “incredibly narrow-minded.” His painting depicted the board of Leiden University in the 1970s with six serious-looking men with cigars in their mouths.
There have been similar removals of the portraits of white males from universities like Harvard and Yale and even courthouses. These are portraits and paintings that capture the history of these institutions. In this case, it is a significant piece of art that was removed.
The College Fix quotes a Jewish student who objected that one of the figures now removed is Dolf Cohen, famous historian and rector, who survived the holocaust by going into hiding. He became one of the most consequential academics in the country. One commenter is quoted as saying “he now turns his back to Leiden.”
In the meantime, the university appears in cringing obedience. It noted that this is not the first objection that the painting is offensive or causing some to feel “unrepresented.”
To object to such actions is to risk being targeted in the next campaign. Even if protected by tenure, such campaigns can leave a professor persona non grata in academic circles, denied essential speaking and publishing opportunities. With few conservatives or dissenting voices on faculties, most professors can expect little support from their colleagues when such controversies arise. The result is deafening silence.
Of course, the university could add the requested “ironic or critical” note by simply stating “This painting depicting a prior board was removed because the board was once composed of only white men. That history has not changed but we added this note.”