Censorship in the arts; a complex but important debate

Censorship is hardly a new phenomenon – even in the ancient world, there are cases such as Socrates, who was executed for spreading dangerous ideas and ‘corrupting the young’, or Ovid, who was sent into exile apparently for his ribald poetry. Visual art has seen its fair share as well, with patrons refusing to pay for pieces they had commissioned if they did not approve of the finished result and more prudish generations painting over the works of previous ones to make them more respectable. Yet the issue raises its head more obviously at some times than at others, and in recent months there seems to have been a sudden focus on censorship in the arts, with each of the several news stories on that theme sparking long and hotly debated discussions in both the art world and wider society. If you follow us on Twitter or read our weekly art news updates, you will have heard a number of these stories. Here we will only discuss two that occurred in the U.S.

The case that has probably been the subject of the most argument is that of the David Wojnarowicz film ‘A Fire in My Belly’ that was removed from the National Portrait Gallery’s ‘Hide/Seek’ exhibition, which focused on the works of artists from the American gay community and their contribution to art. The Catholic League demanded that the video be removed, and Smithsonian secretary G. Wayne Clough told curators to do so. He later explained that he had acted to prevent a controversy over this particular piece from becoming the focus of the exhibition and taking away from its main purpose. However, if anything the result has been the case – the removal caused outrage, with both art critics and others more detached from the art world objecting to what was perceived as strident censorship, with the complaint of a small group overruling other interests and indeed the decision of the curators. This example has been a particularly complex one because although the exhibit was at the NPG (which is part of the Smithsonian) it was privately sponsored, and because such decisions are normally the province of the curator and not left to broader policymakers with less experience in art. Many institutions made public objections, of which the most striking is probably MoMA’s recent acquisition of the controversial film, in both long and short form.

The other recent incident in America was in Los Angeles, where LA MOCA commissioned the artist Blu to paint a mural for them. The director, Jeffrey Deitch, ordered it whitewashed when he returned from Art Basel Miami Beach to discover that the work that had been done included coffins draped in dollar bills, something he feared would be offensive given its proximity to a veterans’ memorial. The interesting point in this case is that it was in a sense preemptive censorship, the result of the director’s sensitivity to veterans who might be visiting nearby.

Some museums find compromises for the problem of what to do with a piece or pieces that they think in advance might be the subject of controversy. They can screen them off, or place them in separate rooms, with a notice indicating that what is inside might cause distress to some visitors. London’s Victoria and Albert Museum recently opened an exhibition on ‘Imperial Chinese Robes from the Forbidden City’ and made a point of letting visitors know in advance that some exhibits included fur – something that is relatively rare in London and is often strongly objected to by animals rights groups. However, this sort of solution is not always effective; with more complex cases where it is more difficult to pin down the potentially problematic point, curators would have to describe the piece so that people could decide whether to see it or not – which rather defeats the purpose.

Of course, this approach would not have been helpful in LA, where one of the issues raised was that of location. The artwork in question wasn’t a painting or a video that was part of an exhibition – it was a mural, out of doors and visible to passers by, not just those who had chosen to visit a particular exhibit. Some argue that there is greater need for care with such pieces – for example, with public art sculptures that appear around a city, or works that are placed outside an institution to greet people before they enter. There is a continuing debate over what level of thought should go into this; some parents may not be happy if their children are unwittingly exposed to works they consider too adult in tone, while others may be willing to use such cases to discuss controversial or difficult topics through the visual aid.

There are no easy answers in this, or any of the questions of the censorship debate, but maybe it is not reasonable to expect that there should be. The most vital thing, perhaps, is that the discussion continues. There is not and never will be a single line everyone agrees on – what one person sees as too much and dangerous or offensive, another sees as banal and pedestrian. However, as long as we continue to argue over where the lines should be drawn, and even what form they should take, we know that we are fully and responsibly engaged in the battle over where, when, and whether artists should be able to present their works.

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One comment

  • Interestingly, the last week has brought a new example of a debate over censorship, when Maine removed a mural in secret over the weekend – because business owners complained it was too pro-labor http://reut.rs/e7BNWZ

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