All Art is Censored Art

Censorship has been a big topic lately in the art world. First there was the situation at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery involving a 4 minute portion of a film by David Wojnarowicz and the disapproval of the religious right.  Martin E. Sullivan, the museum’s director said that the offending film was removed in order to protect the rest of the exhibit. Then in Los Angeles, there was the whitewashing of the wall art of the Italian street artist Blu instigated not by any political body, but by the curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art who said that the art in question was insensitive, given its proximity to a VA hospital and war memorial.

In both instances the reasons given were not accepted by bloggers and pundits. Cries of “No censorship!” were heard throughout the land. Instead of being swayed by the opinions of the internet writers, I tried instead to gather the facts and decide if the logic put forward by curators was valid.  Would the wall in Los Angeles really have offended veterans and their families? Would that have been a bad thing, or does that matter? Did removing Wojnarowicz’s piece from Hide/Seek in Washington really save the rest of the exhibit from further censorship?  Was it worth it? There is really no way to know.

Theatrical producers have always made these sorts of judgments: if they exceed the audience’s expectation by too much or fall short of audience expectation by too much, ticket sales dwindle, so producers bring to the stage plays that fall into that “acceptable” range of audience appeal.

The American film industry followed suit over a century ago, and chose self-censorship as the best option available. The MPPC, through its National Board of Censorship decided that if the movie industry could successfully censor itself, the government would not. They were right.

There are other examples.  Galleries and museums hire curators to decide what to collect and display and what not. That’s what curators do, and unless there is public controversy, they do it quietly and efficiently, and sometimes artfully. This is nothing more than institutional censorship in the person of the curator.

Sometimes, however, outside influences intervene; Cynthia Freeland in her book, Is it Art? notes, “But if a corporation is funding an exhibit, museum directors and curators may feel restricted in what kinds or art can and cannot be shown.”  We all know this, but it’s the way art is exhibited, so we say nothing.

Editing is used to shape the final version of the story, novel, poem, collection of images. This, you say, is not censorship; this is editing; it’s different. But is it? Editing, by definition, includes “selection…correction…and other modification,” deciding what to leave in, what to leave out. It’s just curation on a smaller scale.

Even before our work gets to an editor, we self-edit, that is we self-censor. We decide which images to show and which to throw away. We censor ourselves for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes those reasons can be less than artistic: “That won’t sell.” “This is not representative of the niche I am trying to establish.” “This will confuse potential collectors.” Sometimes there are other issues; consider Charles Darwin: “It took him a long time to publish his ideas, mainly because he was afraid of being attacked as an atheist.”

Some would argue that we should be afraid of nothing, that we should eschew self-censorship as much as outside censorship. I have to disagree. Not all of our product is of the highest quality. We must edit our output in order to exhibit only what we deem worthy of show. Self-censorship is part of the artistic process; it helps define who we are as artists. Indeed, self-censorship is the only valid censorship.

Date: Sunday, 13. February 2011 23:14
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Creativity, Photography, Theatre

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