Art Term Tuesday: Censorship

Katy Thompson, Associate Director of Education

One of the first documented cases of censorship, the process of suppressing any form of media, occurred in ancient Greece. The Greek philosopher Socrates, censored by the state for his teachings and subsequent “corruption” of Athenian youth, was sentenced to death by hemlock poisoning. In the United States, while censorship takes many forms, it rarely ends in the death of the creator; though, in many other countries, an artist does risk their life for their art.

To understand the purpose of censorship is to understand what a society values: freedom of expression and diversity versus conformity through the suppression of ideas. While there are times when censorship is appropriate, there is much discussion around who makes those decisions: the federal government, the state, parents/guardians, teachers, librarians, and institutions, among others. Furthermore, why is the decision of what we watch, read, and see left to someone else?

Making headlines recently in the literary world, censorship is the active suppression of speech–books, film, art, music, the press, TV, radio, social media–or other information sharing on the basis that the material contains morally or politically objectionable content. “Morally or politically objectionable content” is a grey area, however, which has led to the uproar surrounding censorship in the media, including in art. After all, what is objectionable to me may not be to you and vice versa, which goes back to the question of why individuals cannot decide for themselves. Conducted predominantly by governments, private institutions, and, on the rare occasion, the creator of the media (known as self-censorship), art censorship takes multiple forms: removing the artwork from public display, closing an entire gallery or exhibition, and/or labeling an artist and their work as “controversial” or “objectionable” that results in the former.

Perhaps the most familiar example of art censorship by a governing body occurred during World War II when Nazi Germany purged what they deemed “Degenerate Art”, artworks (650 paintings, sculptures, and prints by 112 artists) that insulted the German feeling, to cleanse the culture. In partnership with book burnings, the Degenerate Art Exhibition advertised Nazi values and slandered others; as they moved through Eastern Europe the Nazi’s pilfered art museums for what they deemed culturally superior, looting both museums and private collections across Europe. These artworks were displayed as political instruments to visualize the message of German greatness. In this way, the Nazi’s took part in both political and moral censorship: the government withholding information from the populace for the good of the people. Over the years, various governments and private groups have acted to censor the visual and literary arts, including the United States.

In the United States, freedom of expression is guaranteed by the constitution (with some exclusions, such as hate speech), both verbally and non-verbally. Free communication, whether by word or by brush, is essential to the preservation of a free society and diverse creative culture. While some censorship is necessary to ensure safety and the rights of humans, acts of censorship often have the opposite desired effect. The process of censoring makes the artwork more visible as headlines publish in agreement or disagreement, placing more meaning on the work. While it can push discussion, the ultimate outcome of censorship eventually prohibits it, hindering progress and understanding.

During the Me Too Movement, for example, there was a call by some to take down female nudes because they pander to the male gaze. They claimed that it would serve a twofold purpose: to consider the act of consent and better visualize just how much art centered on the female nude. Taking the works down, however, keeps us from looking and discussing them. While taking them down for an allotted time would certainly make a visual impact, taking them down with no plan to reexhibit them also takes away the art museums imperative to contextualize and present counternarratives. Called “curatorial activism”, it can prompt the viewer to re-think the artwork and, ultimately, better understand it and why the artist chose the subject they did. Similarly, some art museums took down or covered up artworks by immigrants to emphasize their contributions following targeted political campaigns. While creating a visual impact, it also takes away those voices from the museum wall, once again perhaps having the opposite intention.

The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, a regional and national competition for creative teens, takes a firm stance against censorship. As the affiliate for Northeast Indiana & Northwest Ohio, we prepared and exhibited over 600 artworks this year which are now on display at the museum. Students can enter work, both art and writing, on anything and everything! Being creative allows humans to explore difficult and uncomfortable topics or emotions, some of which groups attempt to censor, and better understand thoughts and feelings that differ from our own. Their “anything goes” attitude prompts conversation and connection, asking us to look again and think twice instead of jumping to conclusions.

Visit FWMoA during museum hours (we are free late on Thursday’s from 5pm-8pm!) to see all the creativity of the 2023 Scholastic Art & Writing Award recipients on display at FWMoA through April 8, 2023.

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