Liberals and conservatives are once again screaming at each other over matters of artistic censorship. This time, they are both wrong.
Artistic censorship in the United States has been going on since the country was founded, despite the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of expression. The publication of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” was blocked in 1921 due to a masturbation scene. In 1999, Mayor Rudy Giuliani attempted to withhold 7 million dollars of funding from the Brooklyn Art Museum due to Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” being showcased in their exhibit. The list goes on.
Now, artistic censorship is making headlines once again with issues ranging from protesters toppling Confederate statues to sexuality and religion in art. These phenomena are nothing new, but their prevalence in today’s political climate begs the question, where do we draw the line?
Throughout history, censorship has mainly been utilized in art as a tool for silencing any radical views, typically ones that challenged religious views. LGBTQ art has been routinely censored for centuries and even as recently as 2010, when late artist and gay activist, David Wojnarowicz, had his art removed from The Smithsonian because it was attracting protests from a right-wing Catholic group and members of Congress.
In a more recent trend, censorship has also been utilized by liberals to protest radical right-wing views and hate speech.
What many liberals and conservatives fail to realize is that they have been attempting to draw the same line between censoring content that challenges their personal values and fighting for freedom of expression for causes they deem worthy. For example, liberal advocates fight against censorship of LGBTQ art because LGBTQ rights are part of their party’s values.
However, many liberals have attempted to censor radical white nationalist speakers on college campuses because white supremacy challenges liberal values. The opposite is true of conservatives.
There is no way for the government to formally establish what art should be deemed obscene or offensive and what art is beyond censorship. Art is too personal and censorship is too arbitrary; mere content alone is not enough grounds to ban a piece.
However, when artwork moves past personal interpretation and directly targets a group of people, the line becomes fuzzier. So is the case of Confederate statues still standing in the U.S., which are a dark reminder of America’s treasonous and treacherous past. “Ever wonder why there are no statues of Adolf Hitler in Berlin?” said Gersh Kuntzman of the New York Daily News. “Monuments are never about history itself. They merely represent what the people putting up the monument think about history at the moment that the monument is being installed.”
So is toppling Confederate statues a form of censorship, or merely a new generation attempting to do better for their country? Although the idea of memorializing and idolizing Confederate leaders through artwork is sickening, to censor these statues could render much more worrisome consequences. Once the U.S. government allows one form of art censorship, many others follow.
Another issue arose in 2014 when artist Brett Bailey had to cancel his art display at London’s Barbican Centre due to protests and petitions centered around his display of “human zoos,” calling the exhibit “racist.” Despite growing criticisms of the show, many adamantly defended its content, pointing out that racism and human degradation are relevant conversations to be having in the current political climate.
Although some considered the show racist and too shocking to be displayed, others found it educational and important for people to see. One interpretation should not overshadow the other and prevent many others from getting the chance to experience the art and determine its meaning for themselves. Instead of censoring the exhibit, we should encourage productive discourse on matters of racial art. This allows us to set a standard for what we as a society expect and gives all parties a platform.
We recently had a discussion in my First Year Course, Seeing Performances in the Twin Cities, regarding censorship of art, and specifically how it pertains to the LGBTQ art community. There was a consensus among my classmates that censorship is a dangerous road to travel down, and a better alternative is to create more art that expresses different views . “Last week we were assigned reading about Holly Hughes, a playwright known for her provocative art expressing women’s and LGBTQ sexuality,” Kalala Kiwanuka-Woernle ’22 said. “She had a federal grant that had previously been awarded to her, taken away by the Federal Education Association because of pressures from Congress, saying her art was too vulgar. I think she handled the situation so well and was able to flip the limitations she was given and create art that is still spoken about today.”
Hughes’ reaction to having her grant rescinded was to create art about her experience with censorship. The result is an important discourse regarding freedom of expression and LGBTQ rights. This is a useful way to channel injustice to start an important conversation: in the face of censorship, create more art.
The U.S. cannot afford to tolerate censorship of any kind, because when one person is silenced, every freedom the First Amendment provides will be jeopardized. “The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech,” former President Barack Obama said. This sentiment can also be applied to hateful art. Instead of silencing those who challenge America’s core values, debate them, challenge them in return, and thus a healthy narrative will begin. That, after all, is the basic foundation of American democracy.