Censorship and the Arts

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, June, 1990 in response to the uproar and calls for censorship surrounding the ICA’s exhibition Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment.)

“People are sexually aroused by pictures and sculptures; they break pictures and sculptures; they mutilate them, kiss them, cry before them, and go on journeys to them; they are calmed by them, stirred by them, and incited to revolt. They give thanks by means of them, expect to be elevated by them, and are moved to the highest levels of empathy and fear. They have always responded in these ways; they still do.”
— David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response.

“When that which is said figuratively is taken as though it were literal, it is understood carnally.”
Saint Augustine.

Artists often speak about their struggle to find themselves. They often describe this struggle as a voyage down into the dark to face their own deepest pain and anger, fear and desire. Just think of these titles: Inferno. Heart of Darkness. Season in Hell. Notes from Underground. Death in Venice. Invasion of the Bodysnatchers.

It takes a lot of courage to be an artist.   All kinds of things get in the way of artists making art — lack of time, lack of talent, lack of money, but the thing that gets in the way the most is fear. Fear of looking stupid. Fear of looking crazy. Fear of making something that people won’t like. Fear of saying too much. Fear of not saying enough. That’s why the threat of censorship is so dangerous to Art.

Artists sometimes show you things you don’t want to see — tell you things you don’t want to hear — make you feel things you don’t want to feel. Censorship says “We don’t want to hear about it.”

Censorship is about fear. Censorship is about control.

Milan Kundera made some brilliant connections between censorship and denial in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Here, Mirek wants to forget that he ever loved a woman called Zdena.

“In February 1948, Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to address the hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens packed into Old Town Square. It was a crucial moment in Czech history — a fateful moment of the kind that occurs once or twice in a millenium.

Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing next to him. There were snow flurries, it was cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. The solicitous Clementis took off his own fur cap and set it on Gottwald’s head. Four years later Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately airbrushed him out of history and, obviously, out of all the photographs as well. Ever since, Gottwald has stood on that balcony alone. Where Clementis once stood, there is only bare palace wall.

All that remains of Clementis is the cap on Gottwald’s head.

The reason he [Mirek] wanted to remove her [Zdena’s] picture from the album of his life was not that he hadn’t loved her, but that he had. By erasing her from his mind, he erased his love for her. He airbrushed her out of the picture in the same way the Party propaganda section airbrushed Clementis from the balcony where Gottwald gave his historic speech. Mirek was as much a rewriter of history as the Communist Party, all political parties, all nations, all men. People are always shouting that they want to create a better future. It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten.”

Censorship is about fear. Censorship is about control.

The actual efforts at censorship in this country have been a very far cry from the situation that Kundera experienced in Czechoslovakia. But the fear is here now, and it creates — in the poetic language of the law —  “a chilling effect.”  Remember that the deepest, darkest part of Hell in Dante’s Inferno — Dante, who spent most of his life in exile because his contemporaries didn’t like what he had to say — is also the coldest.

At a symposium on censorship at MIT recently, someone asked State Representative Byron Rushing if he thought the US government should fund obscenity. He replied:

Art is not obscene, although it might deal with issues of obscenity. We’re not asking the public to fund obscenity — we’re asking the public to fund Art. And if you fund art, you must be willing to fund freedom of expression because without freedom of expression there is no Art. Does that mean that people are sometimes going to produce art that you don’t like? Yes.

Art helps us to see the beautiful — and also to face the ugliness in life. Artists need to be free to show us the world as they see it — to tell it like it is.

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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