#$^& Censorship

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Lets talk about censorship.
Time and time again, censorship rears its ugly head within the the visual arts, film, literature and education. Censorship is the cause and condition of passionate debates among a diverse group of individuals that generally results in a work of art being removed from an exhibition, a film and/or book being banned, or a topic/subject being taken out of the curriculum (these are just a few examples within the cultural realm).

The previous post, Art and education as a spiritual awakening, mentioned an infamous example of the religious right trying to censor Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987) when it was exhibited in 1989 (see image above of an iconoclast’s reaction to Serrano’s Piss Christ). Former Senator Jessie Helms (R, North Carolina), was outraged that the work of Serrano, as well as works by another prominent photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe, received funding by the National Endowment for the Arts. Helms and his cohorts led a furious public smear campaign to try and dissociate government support for the arts. The religious right and conservative politicians felt that formal elements such as nudity, graven images of Christ and homosexuality within art were taboo and blasphemous. A nun and art historian by the name of Sister Wendy Mary Beckett (see previous post) attempted to put the kibosh on the matter with her compelling defense of Serrano’s work, stating that she understood Piss Christ to be representative of suffering in light of widespread spiritual degradation within contemporary society. Serrano, a Catholic, intended for the work to be an homage to Jesus’ sacrifice is being taken for granted. As Beckett said: “this is what we are doing to Christ, we are not treating him with reverence. His great sacrifice is not used. We live very vulgar lives. We put Christ in a bottle of urine – in practice” (Moyers & Beckett, 2000).

Robert Mapplethorpe’s work, which prominently features themes and issues depicting LGBTQ identity, made the prudish Helms and other puritanical individuals uncomfortable. They felt it was necessary to demean both the Queer community and Mapplethorpe’s art. Their verbal attacks and threats on both Serrano and Mapplethorpe was devastating to the psyche and structure of the artists’ and the art world.

Similar attempts to censor artistic expression were infamously revisited in 2010, this time with outrage over 11 seconds (footage of ants crawling over a crucifix) from a film called A Fire in My Belly (1986-87) by the artist and HIV/AIDS activist, David Wojnarowicz. Threats from conservative politicians to de-fund the arts, intimidated The Smithsonian Institution to remove an abridged version of A Fire in My Belly from the exhibit “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” Jonathan Ned Katz, historian and co-curator of the show in question, reflected on the controversy:

“In 1989 Senator Jesse Helms demonized Robert Mapplethorpe’s sexuality, and by extension, his art, and with little effort pulled a cowering art world to its knees. His weapon was threatening to disrupt the already pitiful federal support for the arts, and once again, that same weapon is being brandished, and once again we cower.”

I wonder if Helms et al might have expressed the same outrage if they were alive during the time when Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 – 1516) painted his surreal and grotesque depictions of the gospels and other fantastical paintings inspired by his Catholic faith. Helms’ mentality actually fits quite neatly within a 16th century dogmatic perspective on art. When Michelangelo painted the figures of  in his renowned Sistine Chapel fresco, The Last Judgement (1565), he left them stark naked, which caused an uproar and a call by some members of the Catholic clergy to censor it. In fact, after Michelangelo had passed away, his former apprentice added clothes to cover up the nudity in the painting (see: Garcia-Fenech, 2013).

Censorship in the arts dates back centuries. For example, the remains of ancient Hindu temples with statues of deities that have had their faces smashed in due to the rise of Islamic empires, illustrate how dominant cultures have had overarching influence on the types of imagery allowed to be absorbed. When iconoclasts see it fit to defame, alter, or destroy visual elements from other (conquered, past, oppressed, etc.) cultures, they are performing a drastic and severe form of censorship.

Some more recent examples of censorship (and wannabe iconoclasts) include ex-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s outspoken threat and public tantrum to cut funding to the Brooklyn Museum over their display of Chris Ofili’s painting, The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), in 1999. The painting, which is a portrait of a black Madonna, was created with a variety of materials including varnished elephant dung. The dung made associations to one of the Virgin’s bared breasts, while two other pieces of elephant excrement provided a support system for the canvas to be displayed on the floor. Ofili’s epic painting evokes the essence of the Virgin Mary as a powerful and confident woman. She represents fertility, compassion and divine nurture.

By re-presenting her as a black woman, The Holy Virgin Mary pays homage to the fertile crescent, where civilization was originally cultivated, and the African Diaspora, which spread significant cultural ideas throughout the world. Ofili’s connection of ancient cultures and the African Diaspora is presented in an entirely new light within the painting. He considers the piece to be a ‘hip hop’ version of the many variations and depictions of the Virgin Mary throughout time. Ultimately, the Brooklyn museum refused to take the work off of display and ex-Mayor Giuliani (also a litigator) lost a court case that was intended to cut off funding for the museum.

Schools have also faced censorship and threats of censorship from various political and social groups. Censorship in schools affects student’s access to materials, and (like we have seen in the arts) is determined largely by the opinions of outside sources who  reside outside of classroom environments. Foerstel (2002) says that censorship (he refers to books in his work) comes from two opposing factors, the conservative and liberal wings of society. While the conservative organizations typically seek to censor works that express issues they feel are vulgar or antithetical to their mission (such as homosexuality, revolutionary empowerment of oppressed groups, religious criticism and more); liberal groups also have called for the censorship of creative works that contain racial epitaphs or violence. Both instances of censorship have major implications for children’s growth and development.

Within the school environment, the arts are some of the most common subjects ripe for censorship. This is because literature, music and visual art present potent forms of human expression. They may express moments or ideas in time that were largely unpopular within the status quo, or symbolize themes that are heavily critical of systemic operations. The arts also have a direct correlation with history, which is another subject that faces prejudice and strict revision from authoritative policy makers and other influential individuals and groups.

Because censoring groups have varying subjective ideas about what is and is not acceptable to be presented in schools, a significant malady of censorship is the ills affects it has on free and liberated expression. How can we dictate what is suitable for children to learn, when our collective culture is full of divisive and contentious opinions? Wouldn’t it be beneficial to allow for an inquiry based process of learning wherein students can formulate their own opinions on issues that personally affect them and their peers? An open-minded educator can provide a level of discretion and guidance in coaching students to have healthy discourses, and develop deeper understandings for issues that are seemingly problematic. In today’s era, negative and positive aspects are so seamlessly conflated within the culture at large, that declaring things dualistically and in a partisan nature, is disingenuous and ineffective. There is always a grey area, which needs to be examined and given insightful critiques so that we can better understand how we can achieve a civil and more common ground, while still being respectful of differing lifestyles. Therefore, it is important that we don’t shelter our children from the complexities and various realities of the world.

Freedman & Hernandez (1998) stated that the view a society has regarding the arts tells us a lot about its overall nature. Art education has usually thrived within a liberal society with open borders to the ‘outside world’. A society’s willingness to encourage multiple concepts of belief, culture and experience, can lead to its continual success. The viewpoint on the arts in this aforementioned environment is typically positive, as evident during the times of Ancient Athens, the European Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment. However, in an isolated and insular society, art forms, especially those that express individuality, are repressed through systems of control. This is documented throughout various periods such as in Ancient Sparta, Nazi Germany and in contemporary autocracies like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In these societies, a strong military focus overrides the concept of individualism by asserting that citizens must maintain a uniformity of allegiance to their government.

There are major facets that dictate the course of local and national curricula, which have continued to hold influence from Ancient Greece to today. They are, as Elfand (1990) explains: patronage, education and censorship. In the United States of America, these facets greatly impact our sociocultural environment. Patronage, education and censorship, are generally directed by those holding power and wealth. Because of this, their bias and self interests often shape what is deemed relevant and necessary to learn, see, or do. Additionally, the idea from some influential policy makers that the arts should produce attractive objects, but don’t have a utilitarian value beyond its aesthetic qualities, is evident of our society throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The value of art has suffered devastating mainstream blows from politicians like Helms, Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani who denounced funding for the arts (largely due to hard line religious and political ideologies). Furthermore, Barrack Obama remarked that art history isn’t a practical area of education and suggested that other disciplines be taken more seriously in schools (Zucker, 2017). The devaluation and apathy towards art has made it an easy target for de-funding efforts across the cultural and educational spheres.

The arts validate freedom of expression, give us agency to develop and exhibit empathy and strengthen our skills for thinking critically and realizing that the information around us is not always what it may seem. Curricula with a focus on art history and visual culture can help students become more aware of how special interest groups and corporations often manipulate and use images as a form of propaganda.

It has been a long standing and popular practice for modern advertisements to feature works of art or to appropriate an artist’s style, in order to promote a consumer product or a brand ideology (Berger, 1972; Iqbal, 2016). Discerning between actual works of art and advertisements is ever so important in world filled with pop-up banners, website ads, internet forums and memes that disseminate biased information. Furthermore, Lister (2017) posits “fake news and the value we place on the arts are on a see-saw together, as one goes down the other goes up, they are inextricably linked. By devaluing the arts, we are allowing fake news to rule our world which is a terrifying prospect.”

So the problem within our culture, is twofold, the arts are being demystified by mass media, as well as special interests groups; and they are under steady threat from censoring agents who also have specific political, social, religious and/or cultural biases. A similar thesis can be put forth to synthesize how the educational system is being negatively affected by standardization, teaching to the test, as well as censorship and banning/removing certain materials and information from textbooks and scholarly discourse.

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Christina Freeman, UltraViolet Archive. Installation photograph at the Queens Museum, 2018. Photo by Adam Zucker

Issues surrounding censorship are prominently scrutinized via Christina Freeman’s, UltraViolet Archive (2018-), an ongoing (currently on view at the Queens Museum), nomadic and participatory based art project that includes many different cross-referential elements. It is at once, a psychical archive, digital database, library and cinematic environment, which re-presents works of visual art, literature, film, as well as other narratives, histories and ideologies, that were deemed ‘problematic’ at some point in time by authoritative figures. Freeman explains:

“In the UltraViolet Archive, I hope to provide a complex perspective on how censorship influences creative works, by presenting a wide range of works in various media, across time periods, along with the different contexts for each challenge. I would like to show the full spectrum, from works suppressed by state censorship or bias to those challenged by individuals or special interest groups to artists censoring themselves.”

Viewers can interact with the archive by suggesting additional works that are not yet included and offer thoughts on how they define censorship. Additionally, the banned and censored works are displayed in order for these works to be circulated, re-assessed and better understood through new and diverse perspectives.

In the art room, where it is essential to emphasize, encourage and empower student’s personal expression, censoring their work can be shattering. Henley (1997) sheds light on two vocabulary words, censorship and ‘disturbation.’ ‘Disturbation,’ is a term coined in 1986, by art critic Arthur C. Danto, which means any work of art that is provocative and intends to disrupt the status quo. This is true for artists of all ages, and something anyone who has taught in primary, secondary or higher education settings has surely encountered throughout their tenure. Hanley says that these terms are essential for educators to understand in order to build a classroom environment based on freedom of expression and social responsibility. According to Hanley, it would behoove art educators to provide instructional scaffolding to develop provocative student work into conscious and thoughtful statements of intention. Doing so would give a more mature awareness to the topic(s) or issue(s) they are reacting to and symbolizing.

Overall, student artists should feel uninhibited to create work that exemplifies their unique understanding and experiences in the world. They should also have access to the breadth of imagery, issues and topics that are depicted through works of art. The art room should be a sanctuary and open-minded environment, where students and educators can collectively discuss and create all types of art that inspire mindfulness, independent thinking and socially conscious action.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Berger, John. 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books.

Danto, Artur C. 1986. The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art. New York: Columbia University Press.

Efland, Arthur. 1990. A History of Art Education: Intellectual and Social Currents in Teaching the Visual Arts. New York: Teachers College Press.

Foerstel, Herbert N. 2002. Banned in the U.S.A: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools. Westport: Greenwood Press.

Frank, Priscilla. “A Brief History Of Art Censorship From 1508 To 2014.” Huffington Post. 6 Dec. 2017. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/16/art-censorship_n_6465010.html

Freedman, Kerry and Hernandez, Fernando, editors. (1998), Curriculum, Culture and Art Education: Comparative Perspective. New York: State University of New York Press.

Garcia-Fenech, Giovanni. “Michelangelo’s Last Judgment—uncensored.” Artstor, 13 Nov. 2013. https://www.artstor.org/2013/11/13/michelangelos-last-judgment-uncensored/

Ha, Thu-Houng, “People have been trying to get rid of the National Endowment for the Arts for 36 years.” Quartz. 27 Jan. 2017. https://qz.com/895438/the-national-endowment-of-the-arts-nea-has-been-under-fire-from-republicans-for-36-years/

Henley, David. “Art of Disturbation: Provocation and Censorship in Art Education.” Art Education. Vol. 50, No. 4, Literacy, Media, and Meaning (Jul., 1997), pp. 39-45. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3193652?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Iqbal, Uzair. “Ways of Seeing Online: And analysis of John Berger’s Ideas in a Digital Age.” Medium. 22 Aug. 2016. https://medium.com/dodesign-iit-guwahati/ways-of-seeing-online-an-analysis-of-john-bergers-ideas-in-the-digital-age-1f6c980c62b0

Lister, Josephine. “Is The Devaluation Of The Arts Responsible for the Rise of Fake News?” hundrED. 21 Aug. 2017. https://hundred.org/en/articles/is-the-devaluation-of-the-arts-responsible-for-the-rise-of-fake-news

Sister Wendy in Conversation with Bill Moyers. Sister Wendy Beckett and Bill Moyers. Wgbh / Pbs, 2000.

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