What is Censorship in the 21st Century?
What is censorship? The meaning defined in the Encarta World Dictionary will say it is “The suppression or attempted suppression of something objectionable.” Is it appropriate? Where, why, and how? Is there a specific criterion that can actually be defined to implement it? In other words, could one say nudity is allowed in exhibits only if it is not sexual? What would you define as sexual? In some cultures, just full frontal nudity is considered very sexual and indecent. Does the United States Constitution grant an artist a freedom of expression in art? And who is the ultimate authority on what exactly is inappropriate to be displayed? At a college is it the Dean? At a museum is it the curator? Does an art student for instance have 100% freedom to create and display whatever they want?
This was tested at the Maryland Institute College of Art in the early mid 1990’s when I was a student there. In part of the preparation for parent’s weekend, one time the college removed some artwork from one of the exhibit spaces in fear that it may offend some parents. The students and teachers vigorously protested and it made the news. One college instructor of mine said, “They don’t want them (the parents) to know what we are really about.”
The college apologized. The President addressed the students in recognizing the error and vowed to never let it happen again. In that case the students proved they were right. The students felt it was their right to make and exhibit whatever they wanted to represent themselves and their art. Not the college’s ideas and visions. Although this is not always the case. I continually hear stories every now and then about students even in graduate programs at well known institutions who have had their art censored. Many times it is just from one complaint from a casual pedestrian strolling thru the exhibit. So is the public the authority, even if it does not represent a majority of the public? The Federal Communications Commission has many times tried to define what is indecent on radio and television. What you usually wind up with is double standards and ambiguous policies that many find hard to understand. The vast majority of people including myself would agree for instance, that pornography should not be on public television. But some of the more recent actions and policies on the issue of censorship by the Federal Communications Commission are so absurd that it doesn’t at times seem much different in some ways than the Nazi’s campaign of degenerate art. Which we now look back on as laughable. And of course not to forget the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960’s. Do we want to see what only the state allows us to see? Many artists have fled to this country to get out from under the extreme oppression which they were in. But at the same time aren’t many of these ideas on censorship still around even in our country? Of course they are.
- In 1989 the Corcoran Gallery of Art backed out of a commitment to exhibit Robert Mapplethorpe’s art. The Washington Project for the Arts picked up the exhibit and it was a success.
- In 1999 Mayor Giuliani objected to a show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and threatened to cut off massive amounts of funding, and reclaim the building.
- Years after Michelangelo’s death loin cloths were painted over the genitals of his figures in his Last Judgment fresco on the Sistine Chapel wall. Much of that has been removed relatively recently.
- In 2004 Baltimore Mayor Martin O’ Mally’s office censored Aaron Edelson’s painting, “Hitler in France” from an Artscape exhibit at City Hall.
I don’t think censorship now is much different in general than it was at any other time. The reasons for censorship are usually the same in general. I think as an artist censorship is something we have to combat. But I believe artists have to take measures to protect themselves from illegitimate censorship. As we know, not even while exhibiting in large established museums will your art be safe from being censored or just flat out revoked as my exhibit was at the college. How should our contracts be worded to protect our art from unwarranted censorship when we are rightfully given exhibits base on the merits of our art? I think that a lot of us artists have come to falsely believe that in this day in age our art will remain in place on a wall that is rightfully earned. And not be removed because of the objections of one or a few. I know of no artist that believes a total freedom of expression is appropriate in any environment. But there is plenty of precedence for exhibiting any type of subject matter particularly at colleges which are a pillar for open debate and free expression of any and all ideas for adults. And of course art centers, galleries, theaters, and museums. There are far too many things to discuss here and there are people far more knowledgeable on the matter. And I myself have more questions than concrete answers. One site artists should be aware of is the National Coalition Against Censorship http://www.ncac.org/fight-censorship.