It’s for Our Own Good

We all stand in need of protection. At least it seems that way if you keep up with international arts news.

Until someone called attention to it in print, Hamlet was censored in the British Library because the text contained “violent content.” Yes, I would say that it does. Now, whether the literary violence in Hamlet could possibly incite someone to commit similar acts, or perhaps somehow interfere with his/her proper growth and development is, in my estimation, doubtful. The British Museum, however, defended its censorship “saying that it wanted to protect the children visiting the building from content ‘such as pornography and gambling websites.’” If you’re sitting there trying to connect pornography and gambling to Hamlet, you begin to understand the difficulty I have with their position.

In Australia an exhibition of international documentary photography was “heavily censored” by the New South Wales government tourism agency because the images were not “family-friendly.” Further, it was reported that the choices of which images to be removed from the show were “puzzling,” which seems to mean that the rationale was not at all clear. Never mind that “the photographers for the festival had been selected ‘expressly for their integrity and compassion and commitment to human values. Their work admonishes society about the effects of violence and conflict, poverty and oppression, and the real consequences they have for real people.’” Never mind that one of the works removed had won the World Press Award and another had been featured on the cover of an international magazine; both had been seen by millions of people.

And lest you think that this movement is belongs strictly to the British Commonwealth, perhaps the most extreme case reported recently was the alleged censoring of  Koliivschina: Judgment Day, a mural by Volodymyr Kuznetsov, by the director of the Kiev Museum—with black paint. There seems to be no denial of the censorship, but rather the museum’s defense of the action:  it censored work that played “into prejudicial viewpoints,” which was “not in keeping with the spirit of the exhibition.”

In all three of these cases, some person who had power or influence, had taken it upon him/herself to predetermine what the audience of a particular venue could and could not see, and had decided that certain pieces had the potential of offending or somehow damaging some segment of that audience. This is the sort of thing that George Orwell ran into when he initially tried to publish Animal Farm. This fear of offending someone has permeated much of the artistic universe—at least on the part of non-artists. Salman Rushdie recently spoke in Scotland about the new “’culture of offendedness’. . . saying that people increasingly ‘define ourselves by hate.’”

Artists are impacted as well. Recently in a discussion on LinkedIn, fine art photographers discussed limiting their online offerings for a variety of reasons, all of which boiled down to not wanting to offend. Such thinking indicates that Rushdie may well be right.

In “All Art is Censored Art” I argued that the only artistically valid censorship is self-censorship. But sometimes even that validity can be called into question. If Rushdie is right and people are currently defining themselves by what they hate instead of what they like, we, as artists, are not required to play into that; we are not required to worry about whom we might offend. If children need protection, let their minders learn where the off switches are and how to control what the child is and is not allowed to see—not because the material is or should be censored, but because the child’s activities are properly monitored and he/she is taught what is and is not appropriate.

And, most important, if the artist puts it out into the world, and curator puts it into the show, then let the audience see it. Audiences, on the whole, do not need the protection of some self-serving demagogue deciding what is and is not appropriate for them to see. Let them see it and decide for themselves, and their children.

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Date: Sunday, 18. August 2013 23:37
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