Teddy bear display spurs discussion at University of Wisconsin-Platteville
The disarming this month of 25 knife-wielding teddy bears by UW-Platteville police has prompted a campuswide discussion on the boundary between free expression and campus safety.
The bears were part of a student art display, propped up in neat rows on the floor of the main lobby of the UW-Platteville Art Building with sharp kitchen knives in their plush laps.
A campus police officer who was securing the building on the morning of Feb. 7 — a Saturday — was alarmed by the artwork and chose not to open the building, instead calling the chairman of the art department. Because the building is open to the public, the two agreed the knives should be removed.
"We were concerned with the accessiblity of these knives on a weekend day with no faculty or staff in the building," said Scott Marquardt, director of campus police.
The student who created the display, Michael Hannigan, a self-described "guerilla artist," frequently creates anonymous work intended to be provocative. This display was an attempt to juxtapose the innocence of teddy bears against the ferocity of real bears, he said.
"The idea that teddy bears are so cute and cuddly was kind of funny and almost ridiculous," Hannigan said. "I wanted to return some of that notion that bears are deadly and scary to the teddy bear."
But Hannigan’s interpretation of that notion was trumped by a University of Wisconsin System rule that prohibits the display of "any object that resembles a dangerous weapon" in university buildings. The display had gone unmentioned for about a week by campus police before the officer raised the alarm.
The incident sparked a deeper conversation on censorship and the arts in UW-Platteville classrooms, said Linda James, assistant professor of art history.
"They (police and administrators) kept saying it wasn’t censorship, and I say, ‘Sure it is,’â€…" James said. "But let’s qualify it and call it necessary censorship."
James, who wrote an essay on the incident and submitted it as a potential topic for a faculty forum, said police and administrators were respectful. She said she recognized the necessity of the safety precautions, especially after student violence at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University.
Still, both she and Hannigan said the artistic value of the project is lost without the knives.
"I felt the bears kind of looked stupid" without the knives, Hannigan said. "They looked kind of childish by themselves."
Some students took the opportunity to create another message with the display, putting plastic cafeteria knives on the bears’ laps and writing "censored" on them.