Friday, December 3, 2010

Art and Censorship

 "Artists must continue the conquest of new territory and new taboos"
- Norman Rosenthal, Director of the Royal Academy of Arts, London

The blogosphere today buzzed with controversy at the Smithsonian! The Smithsonian finally bowed to the pressure from the religious groups, specially the Catholic League, and removed a 4 minute video, which according to the right wing sensibility is "anti-religion".The NPG was showing an excerpt (the original is 30 minutes long) from a piece titled "Fire in My Belly" which gay artist David Wojnarowicz made in honor of Peter Hujar, his lover and fellow artist ( Hujar  died of AIDS in late 1980's). For few seconds, the video, shows a crucifix, crawling with ants! I obviously did not find any anti religion overtone in that short excerpt! If anything the whole thing reeked of human sadness over losing a loved one! It does not have the  blatant disrespect of  Andres Serano's Piss Jesus, done more  for sensationalism than anything else!
Boner,( ooops, I meant Boehner) and his right wing cronies soon jumped on the bandwagon and  turned the whole thing into a media circus! David Wojnarowicz, has been dead for 20 years and obviously can't defend his art but  I (and many others, I am sure) feel strongly that the Smithsonian should not have caved to political demands! But then Smithsonian is a not a bastion of free thinking! The fact that a four minute video was removed  is not really as concerning  as the fact that at end of the first decade of the twenty first century we are still plagued by bigotry! A work of art does not defile religion. Intolerance does.

The Holy Virgin Mary, Chris Ofili (Part of the Sensation Exhibition. The black Madonna made with elephant dung was one of the controversial images)

I remember the huge controversy surrounding  the Sensation Exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum! The major player was  then Mayor of NYC, Giuliani! He condemned the show as "sick" and tasteless and  threatened to cut funding from the museum! May I add, he did not see the show prior to making the accusations! Steven C. Dubin, a writer for Art in America observed "Art critic, landlord, social worker and sponsorship scold: Giuliani tried on all these hats and more, desperately hoping to find one that fits".
 Another such controversy was in  1989,when  the Corcoran Gallery of Art announced that it was canceling the Mapplethorpe Retrospective because it hurts the sensibility of the public and it did not want to "adversely affect the NEA's congressional appropriations". Artists, students and gay and lesbian rights activists picketed the Corcoran, while slides of Mapplethorpe photographs are projected on the museum's facade. Just another example of censorship at play!

David Wojnarowciz (Silence\Death)

My point is,the Smithsonian incidence is not the first time American politics has affected art! And if we think this controversy will be the last one, then we are mistaken! I understand if religious groups find it objectionable that their revered symbols are being used, well , not "religiously"! But I think they should take it as it is! Just an expression of an individual artist! If their belief system is strong and  deep enough, they can take these minor things in their stride! My only concern is that, if art has to bow down to religious and political pressure, will a day come when self expression  withers away? Does anyone else think this smells like the Nazi oppression of art and artists prior to WWII? America would hopefully not follow down that same disastrous path! One thing that makes America great is the freedom of Speech and Expression. If we take that away, don't we lose a moral ground? Food for thought.....


  1. WoW, Ishita! You write so powerfully about such a sensitive and emotionally charged topic. It is so easy to see all kinds of divisiveness in today's society. Yet, it is so difficult to make any sense of it, rise above it and/or fight to change it. Thank you for your defense of one's being true to one's artistic beliefs.

  2. Thank you , Joan! I believe in right to self expression! The govt should not try to shape my taste for art or anything for that matter! If I as an individual find something offensive, I will make that decision on my own ! Not the GOP or religious groups!

  3. You are good!! I love your selection of topic and your opinion around it.
    Thank you for posting the youtube link, honestly, I could not go through with more than 90 seconds of it, not because it was offensive, but you are right it reeked of human pain and I could actually feel it.
    On the other hand I can understand the concern of the Govt towards religious sentiments. Today its become a world with a lot of religious tension as it is, we don't want to create more. But will it go back to the ay it was pre-WW II? That we have to wait and see. My question is what is enough sanction? how do we know that this is too much or too little of sanction.
    And don't you think as artists even we have a responsibility ?

  4. I think when David W made that video , he wanted to make a commentary on the state of the society where AIDS was considered to be taboo. We have moved away from that stand, thanks to artists and activists who pointed the way..... As an artists we have to make a choice: do we depict only the beauty in this world or do we show the ugliness? Because both exists!

    And in terms of censorship, it is my humble opinion that censorship frankly treats the pubic as infants! We have the reason and intellect to figure out what is art and what is not! And we should be able to make that choice and not have someone make it for us!

  5. I honestly think you would enjoy It's censorship free collaborative drawing, everyone draws onto one canvas.

    You can draw anything onto a canvas and it stays there forever (as long as no one draws over it!)

    give it a go :)