Art is meant to get you to think and to allow for alternative perspectives. This is what Rein Dool’s 1976 painting was intended to do. It shows a group of executive university staff: elderly men sitting around a conference table, smoking. Rather than painting a flattering portrait of these people, Dool created an ironic representation of navel-gazing executives. It is a mirror of the closed nature of the university, which was dispensed with in the nineteen-seventies through student action among other things.

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Cigar smokers spark unrest in Leiden

A painting depicting men smoking cigars has been removed from a room at Leiden University…

There is an oppressive, uncomfortable air about the painting, and it seems to me this is what the painter intended. At any rate, that was the feeling it evoked in a Leiden PhD student, who asked what the painting actually meant and whether it might not benefit from a critical commentary. The painting was promptly and proudly removed.

One of the men depicted is Dolf Cohen, who was in hiding during the war and later became the Rector Magnificus of Leiden University. His son Job Cohen, the former leader of the Labour Party, offered the current Executive Board to teach a refresher course about the painting. A commotion on social media led to its removal, and a commotion about this removal led to its reinstatement.

The to-do about the painting seems trivial, just the umpteenth storm in a teacup on Twitter. Yet there is cause for concern, including about the way the painting was removed: triumphantly, as though taking away this piece of art were a kind of liberation. It is, however, an illiberal sign. By removing the painting, the faculty removed a mirror the artist intended to hold up to all students, lecturers and researchers at the university. A piece, no less, that offers a critical take on the closed, hardly diverse academic life of the seventies. It continues to be relevant and to give rise to debate, as the questions and discomfort of the Leiden PhD student clearly demonstrated.

Ronald van Raak column2-Levien, Pauline

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Inconvenient truth with a good joke

Every Erasmian should read In Praise of Folly to learn to empathise with others, says…

Following extensive criticism of this ugly removal, Leiden University decided to reinstate the painting. The university also appointed a special committee to look into ways of ‘improving’ the way the painting is displayed. This reinforces the notion that there is something ‘wrong’ with this work of art, and that we must see what can be done so it leads to fewer questions and less discomfort. Questions and discomfort are precisely what it was intended to generate. It is meant to provoke and to get viewers out of their comfort zone, causing us to reflect. It might be a better idea for Leiden University to have a debate about academic values, the role of the university and the importance of art in stimulating open debate.

Ronald van Raak is professor of Erasmian values. He will hold his inaugural address on Friday 25 November.