Art Term Tuesday: Censorship

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

As a form of visual communication, art is susceptible to censorship. The restriction or suppression of words (books), images (art), or ideas (scientific discoveries) that are “offensive”, censorship is limited in America by the First Amendment. Freedom of expression only goes so far, however, as hate speech is not protected under the First Amendment and neither is slander or libel. But wait, does hate speech exist in art? Yes! Many artist use words in their art, but more than that, they use images to convey the message, for example, Nazi propaganda posters.  While cases like this are cut and dry today, defining a work of art as “offensive” or “obscene” depends upon the opinion of the declarative party.

An abstracted silhouette of a butt, in orange in profile, set against a red background.
Clarence Holbrook Carter. American, 1904-2000. Nude in Motion. Screenprint on paper, 1978. Gift of Paul O. Koether, 2005.08. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Often, those petitioning for censorship are individuals or groups imposing their personal, political, moral, or religious values and agendas on their community. Censoring art makes an immediate statement defining what art is and is not. Thanks to the First Amendment, the government cannot censor, however, private groups and corporations can. Why would they? Facebook and Instagram, both private corporations, control what is posted to their social media sites. Users consent to these controls when they agree to the Terms & Conditions. Just last year, however, they sat down with artists and museum professionals to discuss the censoring of provocative and nude photography on the site, understanding that it could be prohibitive to artists conveying expressive messages and challenging the status quo. On the other hand, both platforms have come under scrutiny for their inability to control “fake news” and the spread of misinformation on their sites. In this case, censorship is seen in a positive light, just as it prohibits someone from shouting “FIRE” in a crowded space and causing a panic. Should corporations, however, be in a position to define what art is and what it is not through censorship?

A photograph of a woman breastfeeding her child in her home, she sits in a rocking chair and makes direct eye contact with the viewer.
Would Facebook or Instagram censor this photograph? Jessica Todd Harper, American, b. 1975. Becky, June, Jessica, Mary. Archival pigment print, 213. Courtesy of Rick Wester Fine Art. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

 The Supreme Court case Miller v. California (1973) decided that art could be censored if: it was not designed to convey a visual message, it is considered “obscene” and of no artistic value, or it offends the rights of others. This is vague, to say the least. What offends you may not offend your neighbor, so how do museums decide what they exhibit when they are answerable to a community that defines “obscenity” on a sliding scale? One cannot define a work of art as obscene just because it does not fit a person’s aesthetic or likes. The Salon de Refusés in Paris (1863) was an exhibition of artworks rejected by the Paris Salon jury. Our juried exhibitions, such as The National: Best Contemporary Photograph and The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, are not practicing censorship by not choosing certain artists. Art is subjective, and a jury has the right to select the best works. What they cannot do is choose to not select a work because they do not agree with the expressed message of the artist, that is to say, they cannot place their own personal bias on the artworks.

As a public institution, we are more answerable to our community than other organizations, and it is important to show expressions of ideas from diverse groups. The purpose of a museum is to educate the public about its collection, whether books, artworks, historic objects, or scientific discoveries. Libraries face this too, as banned books are often pulled from their shelves due to community action. At FWMoA, the education department receives calls inquiring about any “inappropriate” artworks that students may encounter on a tour. Defining what is “inappropriate” to school groups is, actually, often easier than defining obscenity: anything nude. Despite receiving a request from one group to cover up, quite literally, any inappropriate artworks, the museum takes a definitive stance on “nude” versus “naked”, which we tackled in an earlier “Art Term Tuesday”. In short, museums interpret the nude as a celebration of the human form while a naked, unclothed body is not. This came to a pointed debate with the #MeToo movement, however, as questions were put forth asking if nude paintings were supporting voyeurism and the continued objectification of the female form. Does this change if the artist is female instead of male, thus eliminating the “male gaze”? Can we leave the works on exhibit so long as didactic text accompanies them? Many of these works are historical, should they be held to current beliefs when we have no documentation saying whether or not the subject gave consent?

A woman with long, red hair that partly covers her breasts raises her arms and looks skyward. She wears a lei of flowers, and more flowers make up her headband. She has a green arc of leaves around her head.
To censor or not to censor? Chuck Sperry, American, b. 1962. Thalia. Handwoven wool tapestry, 2018. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

As a contemporary art museum, we are not often beset by these historical artworks questioned in present times. FWMoA hosts the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards for our region, and one of the main tenets of the Awards is that students are permitted to make art and write stories about anything they like. The Awards are completely censorship free. This means that we receive artworks that are nude, may be defined as obscene by some, and that express political and social messages. As most students enter through their schools, educators may choose not to enter a piece if they find it inappropriate, a level of censorship we don’t see and may not be aware of happening. One of our current exhibitions, Hope Dies Last—The New Armenia, was questioned about its subject matter, the Armenian Genocide, as being too sad to exhibit during certain events. The last National exhibition prominently showcased a breastfeeding mother on the title wall. Other contemporary exhibitions and sculpture have included realistic nudes. Despite these concerns, the art is up and on display. When we tour students, we don’t make it a point to discuss nude works with younger audiences but we do actively engage students if questions arise. From time to time, a student will respond to a question about an artwork with, “that’s inappropriate”; but, asking students to explain why they think so illuminates their inability to explain why. It is a learned behavior from others.

Art museums will always have to grapple with the call for censorship from their communities. As artists continue to act as the vanguard for questioning society and its definition of indecent, immoral, and impure; museums will continue to reckon with the definition of appropriate. Unlike movies, whose appropriateness are based on a rating system of violence, language, and sexual content, art museums do not put ratings (PG, PG-13, or R) on their exhibitions. They may offer suggestions, or disclaimers, but you’ll never need an ID to see the art.

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