Censorship of artwork has been happening for centuries. This type of suppression is destructive and unnecessary. Here are some aspects of censorship to consider as it relates to visual art.
The people who want to censor artwork, or literature, or clothing, or anything else, often do so under the pretense of acting out of a protection of society, regardless of the resulting consequences. They often assert that they have performed their acts “for the children” or to “avoid a distraction.” The fact is, they do it for themselves. Their outrage is personal and situational. For instance, they call for an art gallery to remove a photograph they don’t like, but decry the destruction of artwork by the censors known as ISIS.
The censors assume that they know better than anyone else what is good enough for public consumption. They believe that the opinion of the artist, his or her expression with an artwork, is not valuable, and the ideas depicted in the artwork are not beneficial. Not only do they believe this about the ideas of this particular artist, but they believe it about everyone who likes the painting, everyone who is indifferent to the painting, and everyone who dislikes the painting, but feels that it should be displayed as a means of expression and a testament to basic human rights.
Censorship has a history of absurdity. Some of the figures in The Last Judgment painting on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, by a newly deceased Michelangelo, had clothes added because Pope Pius IV thought the nudity in the painting was inappropriate. Honore Daumier was thrown in prison because of a cartoon he made about King Louis Philippe. Impressionist artwork was laughed at and rejected by French critics and the public for a while. The Fauve works of Henri Matisse were hated and he was threatened by members of the viewing public. Cubist works were rejected for exhibits and belittled in newspaper articles. Do all these actions seem naïve now? Of course they do. Censorship was stupid then, and it’s stupid now.
Protest art has ALWAYS been part of the art scene, from newspaper cartoons against the British in the 1770s to the anti-slavery art of the 1800s to the works of Barbara Kruger, Sue Coe, and Shepard Fairey today. In the United States, the First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees freedom for this type of communication. These censors want to pick and choose which amendments they are going to support. Guns, yes; artwork, no?
These censors do not have the capacity to think about the reasons for the object that has created their ire. It is almost impossible for them to develop an understanding of the point of view of an author, artist, or any other person who might or might not disagree with them. Why don’t they try to understand it on their own? They prefer to be offended and angry. It is easier. It is entertaining for them. It is the lazy, insensitive way out.
A good option for these would-be censors is to recognize that they live in a country in which people have freedom of speech, and whether they like an artwork or not, the artist has the right to create and exhibit the work. Another great option is to simply avert their eyes from the painting, or not read Catcher in the Rye, or not listen to Marilyn Manson music. But that’s not enough for some of them. They NEED to make a scene. They truly believe that their opinions should be shouted at high volume, in hope that others will join in their stupid march of pitchforks and torches.
The worst thing that can happen to these would-be censors is that they will be ignored. They need support from others who are outraged by a piece of artwork. Their courage is usually only present when they have others to defend them.
Censors make artists, writers, and performers famous. Gustave Courbet, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, Andres Serrano, Chris Ofili, and Ai Weiwei are certainly more famous because of censorship or attempts at censorship.
Is censorship dangerous? It certainly is. It keeps me from learning the viewpoint of someone else just because you don’t like it. Censorship allows the current ruling group (political, religious, academic, etc.) to decide for everyone else what they can see, watch, hear, taste, touch, read, or enjoy. It purposefully limits what you can learn or understand. Without variety, your education is limited. If people are not exposed to different ideas, concepts, and types of entertainment, society will surely suffer and degrade. Censorship keeps people ignorant.
The censors are the ones who burn record albums. They destroy artwork. They try to destroy anything they don’t personally enjoy. They start fights with people because they don’t like their skin color or their clothing. They stand their ground and shoot people of other races simply because they are intimidated by their appearance. They use vandalism to intimidate people because they don’t worship in the same manner. If you think it’s a stretch from pulling a painting off a wall to shooting someone, read the story of the shootings at Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
Dr. Michael Faris is an artist, art educator, and art and civil rights advocate. Visit his website to view more of his work at www.michaelfarisart.com. Click any image for a larger view and enjoy these three artworks by Michael Faris.