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When the Puppeteers Become the Puppets
Conformists can't make great art.
On the door of my bank in Washington, D.C., is a printed notice politely requesting me to remove any form of facial concealment before I enter the premises. The notice doesn’t bore me or weary me by explaining its reasoning: A person barging through those doors with any sort of mask would incur the right and proper presumption of guilt. This presumption should operate in the rest of society. I would indignantly refuse to have any dealings with a nurse or doctor or teacher who hid his or her face, let alone a tax inspector or customs official.
Due to my attention having been primed by the recent story “Mountaineer Blues,” which reported of the fiscal calamity at Western Virginia University that “Nothing of this magnitude has happened before at any institution of WVU’s size or stature,” and news of a second disregarded letter from the Foundation of Individual Rights and Expression that was sent to WVU asking them to rescind its proposed requirement that faculty appointment letters mandate that recipients “accept and encourage change that is for the greater good,” I noticed yet another item regarding WVU. This was “Fuzz Cut: Can a puppetry major survive a flagship’s financial crisis? Should it?” in the Chronicle of Higher Education, dateline July 3, 2023.
It was in essence the human interest angle on the former article. WVU offers one of the few BFAs available in puppetry. Because there are only two students matriculating in the major, the program is in danger of being cut entirely. The reporter, Emma Petit, spoke with the professor running the program, Mary McClung, WVU provost Maryanne Reed, and several students. Petit’s sympathies are with the students, zany puppet-wielders all, but Reed is depicted responsibly.
As I read, however, I stopped tracking the issues under discussion and started to notice instead the illustrations.
Indeed, every scene of a classroom shows the students and instructors wearing cloth masks. I reached out to the press department at WVU to ask if masks were required at some point during 2023. A spokesperson replied, “Masks are not required on West Virginia University campuses but are always welcome.”
Masks have no demonstrable effect on the transmission of Covid. Effects, such as they have been discovered, reliably disappear into statistical insignificance. Back in March, Beny Spira, a professor in the department of microbiology at the University of São Paulo, reported on a study published in January by Cochrane, which Spira described as “the leading global advocate for evidence-based health care.” In a meta-analysis of thirteen randomized control trials, Cochrane found:
…that the risk reduction provided by masks, based on laboratory testing for influenza/SARS-CoV-2 was 1.01. The confidence interval, which indicates the variation among the studies analyzed in the review, was 0.72 (28 percent risk reduction) to 1.42 (42 percent risk increase). In other words, for the masks to have any effect, the risk reduction should have been lower than 1.0. The authors thus concluded based on these data (the best scientific evidence available) that masks were found to have no effect on viral transmission.
In fact, the inefficiency of masks had already been pointed out in a previous Cochrane review published in December 2020. Even before that, anyone who had looked at the scientific literature in the field would have deduced the same.
Moreover, these were the N95/P2 class of masks, not the cloth masks pictured throughout overhead, which are known to be still less effective. And yes, you’re reading correctly that several of the mask studies show that they caused increased transmission.
I also notice how adipose are most of the persons pictured. Worse Covid outcomes correlate directly with excess weight. This was discovered almost immediately after the outbreak. Yet instead of pursuing fitness, which is known to be protective, they’re wearing cloth masks, which are known not to be, even cute ones. Seriously, this guy:
I went through a flannel-and-combat-boots phase at the Rhode Island School of Design. I can hardly claim to be immune to social contagion. But I’m pretty sure that if the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases had spent years spreading misinformation and fear to the effect that it was necessary for everyone to wear flannel and combat boots in order to protect society from a respiratory infection that I, as a teenager without other serious health complications, was close to 100% likely to survive without further concerns, I would have switched to Brooks Brothers.
This brings me to the other item overhead, that WVU is effectively trying to force faculty to profess institutional and ideological fealty. To quote the FIRE letter:
Requirements that faculty “accept and encourage change that is for the greater good” and avoid speech that “reflects adversely on the image of the University” necessarily implicate terms that lack clear definitions and that, in turn, lack clear parameters for compliance. Vague directives are also, by their nature, ripe for abuse as they require administrators make inherently subjective judgments and can all too easily be used—and frequently are—to punish faculty who engage in speech or scholarship that may be controversial or which an administrator dislikes, for any reason.
Am I wrong to suspect that the urge to conform and make others conform may be greater at WVU than what should be countenanced in an art program? And that the loss of 5,000 students at WVU since 2014, with 5,000 fewer expected in the next decade—which is mainly why they’re having such dire financial shortfalls—may have something to do with the cultural climate? I may be. But it doesn’t look promising.
I’m left with an unfortunate image: young adults who should be at their height of ferocity and independence, instead with Anthony Fauci’s hand up their backsides, making them hop along to gestures that he commands.
It would be sad to lose such a charming program. But its loss would not greatly injure puppetry, I believe. Conformists can’t make great art. What appears to be the original title of the article has been preserved in the HTML
<title> tag. You can see it in the browser tab: “Is College for Puppets?” Apparently the answer is Yes.
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This week we will begin an Asynchronous Studio Book Club reading of Totality: Abstraction and Meaning in the Art of Barnett Newman by Michael Schreyach. Obtain your copy soon.
An exhibition of my work is up at the Fuller Public Library in southern New Hampshire through September 30, with a reception in the morning on September 23.
Proper attribution can be found at link overhead. The photographs are under discussion and I am posting them under the principle of journalistic fair use.