Controversy at Robert Morris

The whole story here is kind of, well, kind of crazy. There. I said it.

A Chicago dance team that performed in straitjackets last month has drawn criticism from a mental health advocate who said the outfits displayed insensitivity toward people with mental disorders.

The Robert Morris University competitive dance team wore the costumes, which included wild, frizzy hair and dark eye makeup, at a national contest in Minnesota. Chrisa Hickey, a Barrington mother whose 16-year-old son has schizoaffective disorder, complained to the school after she saw an online photo of the dancers last week.

“It’s accepted as entertainment,” she said. “But if you’ve seen your kid restrained and medicated because he’s having a complete psychotic break, it wouldn’t be entertaining.”

Robert Morris President Michael Viollt said the costumes were inappropriate and will not be worn again. Outfits for the dance team, which until now have not been approved by the school, will go through the same committee that approves the uniforms of sports teams, he said.

I don’t mind the complaint, really; I even sympathize with it. It’s the President’s response that strikes me as ridiculous and particularly weak.

When it comes to art and “offense,” I would say the appropriate response is something like, “What would you propose that we do?” followed by thoughtful discussion about how to take the opportunity to make the moment a teachable one for those involved. The goal would be to make sure that if and when they decide to do something with straightjackets, they are aware of all of the possible implications and interpretations (i.e., be aware of their own blind spots), to help them expand their moral imaginations and so help them develop as artists and people, rather than think a vague criterion like “inappropriate” and a committee process will do the same thing.

Then again, that might just be the do-gooder in me. I’m guessing that MathArt’s response would have been something like re-staging the performance in the Barrington mall. I have some sympathies with that approach, too, to be honest.