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Column: The Finer Things

Censorship Is Subjective

Assoc. Arts & Review Editor

Published: Sunday, March 24, 2013

Updated: Sunday, March 24, 2013 19:03

Individual expression. Artistic license. Creative freedom.

With such phrases describing the world of art—including mediums of all types—it seems as if the artist is liberally permitted, almost encouraged, to approach anything, essentially, as an artistic subject.

No bars. No shackles. No chains.

But are there really no laws when it comes to art? Do writers, painters, and musicians, truly have the right to express themselves in whatever way they deem fit? Are there no subjects or topics that should be restricted when it comes to art?

The practice of censorship addresses the status of the artist and his work, exhibiting that though he’s no prisoner, he’s certainly not an entirely free man either. And despite the connotation of “limitlessness” that surrounds art, censorship demonstrates that art is always and inevitably put on trial, judged in the context of political, religious, and moral correctness.

In China for example, Andy Warhol’s iconic series of paintings on Communist leader, Mao Zedong, was banned this past winter from being featured in galleries in Beijing and Shanghai while on a 26 month-long Asian tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of the artist’s death. Apparently, these particular pieces of Warhol pop art were censored because of “political sensitivity.” But does the Chinese government’s rejection of Warhol’s prints invalidate his work? Was it a topic that he shouldn’t have pursued or, perhaps, handled differently?

Artistic censorship is limited not only to political concerns, though—it’s also based on religious objections. Last July, the infamous pop artist Lady Gaga was banned from singing in Indonesia due to protestations from Islamic conservatives. Because of the sexual nature of her performances, Gaga was forced to cancel the biggest stop on her “Born This Way Ball” Asian tour, founded on assertions that her concert would religiously corrupt the country’s youth. So if Gaga is censored by some countries and accepted by others, how does that affect her title as a musical artist, if it does at all?

Moral correctness, however, seems to possess the greatest influence when it comes to censorship decisions—at least in the U.S. Within the scope of the first amendment, which protects our expressive freedoms, the government can filter artistic work interpretable as slanderous, libelous, pornographic, or, most commonly, “obscene”—in other words, offensive or disgusting by accepted standards of morality and decency. The album artwork of Kanye West’s 2010 release, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is an ideal example. Portraying a highly instigative image of a nude man and a naked, female phoenix straddling each other, the design was created by George Condo. The record was banned by certain stores, and the album cover was censored, blurred, and even changed by others. Condo, in fact, claimed in an interview that West wanted “something that [would] be banned.” Knowing that, then, should artistic leniency be granted to someone who is not only an artist, but also an outright provocateur?

Through the years, a countless number of musicians have undergone moral scrutiny for their artistic expressions, but it’s been authors and their books that have faced the brunt of censorship since the very beginning. Both Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men were notoriously banned on social grounds, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening was censored due to moral concerns. Interestingly, these novels are all classics—representatives of the finest aspects of American literature. So, what does that reveal about censorship? About art?

Ben Franklin once said, “If all printers were determined not to print anything ’til they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed.” And he’s entirely correct: art will unavoidably affront some people, taking on subject matter that is questionable at times, but it’s up to the artist to determine how to approach that truth. In the end, it’s not just a question of free expression and its relation to censorship—it’s a question of good taste, of judgment—because even censorship is subjective. So, maybe the artist is imprisoned, sentenced to some degree to critical decency, but it’s him alone who’s in possession of the lock and key to free himself—he just needs to know when, where, and how to do so appropriately.


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