All societies have their limits as to what can and should be communicated to their people. The debate over art censorship has existed for thousands of years, affecting works by artists from Michelangelo to Robert Mapplethorpe. Where do we draw the line between freedom of artistic expression and pieces that are unsuitable for viewing by the general public?
With the Internet assisting the dissemination of ideas throughout the world and providing access to almost any piece of art in a matter of seconds, it’s strange to think that anything can be completely and deliberately hidden from the public eye in the modern world. Back in 1565, Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement” was deemed unholy by much of the public, and the appearance of naked people “distracted” from the overall artistic effect of the piece. In 1894, Frederick MacMonnies’ “Bacchante and Infant Faun” was criticized because it featured the exposed genitalia of a woman and made her appear drunk, and with a baby in her hands. Many thought this sculpture was “indecent” to both women and motherhood. More recently, in 1989, Scott Tyler’s “What is the Proper Way to Display the US Flag?” depicted an American Flag on the ground of an art exhibit. Not only was it criticized for violating the rule that the American flag must never touch the ground, the only way for exhibit-goers to view the photography book, the focal point of the show, was by stepping on the flag. Some visitors were arrested for stepping on the flag. Even more recently, in 2014, Brett Bailey’s “Exhibit B” displayed a replication of the “Human Zoos” that were prominent in the 19th and 20th centuries. These Human Zoos featured African Americans in their “natural habitats” where white people could come and “watch” them. Bailey was excoriated for this performance art piece because it was perceived as racist, especially given that Bailey himself was caucasian. From nudity and sexism, to age-old political unspoken rules and racism, art has had its fair share of works that are deemed inappropriate for audiences, and in some cases, censored.
I believe that the evolution of art is spurred on by people who push boundaries. Art isn’t supposed to just exist as a passive reflection of commonplace culture. Art is supposed to make its audience react and discuss what they’re seeing. Art introduces someone else’s reality, and if you’re uncomfortable with it, don’t look at it anymore. You may be able to censor art, but you can’t extinguish the underlying ideas and perceptions that it communicates. Why should others have the power to control what is able to be seen by the masses or what is expressed by the artist?
On the other hand, advocates of censorship argue that art exists for others to enjoy, and having offensive messages is anathema to art. Censorship advocates point out that young children shouldn’t be exposed to genitalia and the horrors of 20th century racism. They argue that art is a way for us to come together, and it should not be divisive. By marveling at the beauty that art brings, we become closer and more appreciative of sublime creativity. Throwing derogatory themes into the mix defeats the purpose, disrupts our happiness, and invites us to question what the true purpose of art is.
Like all great debates, the issue on whether art should be censored will never be fully resolved. There will always be certain works that are deemed too risqué for certain audiences. If they are not censored, we must learn to keep our opinions to ourselves, and appreciate the willingness of certain artists to express themselves, regardless of the taste of their pieces.
Graphics: Jessica Chang