Censorship In Art Essay, Research Paper
Censorship is usually considered “official” censorship because it is action taken by governmental institutions such as government committees, or universities, to limit the view of a specific artwork or a group of works by the public. However, these concrete official actions taken to limit public view of specific artwork are only the results of the abstract “censoring attitudes” of individuals or groups of individuals, encouraging the actions. Censoring attitudes can arise from feelings of race or gender discrimination, discrimination against the gay community, fear of taboos and controversially issues, and assumed moral or Christian authority. It is these attitudes that are the basis of censorship, not necessarily the artist’s intentions of their artwork, because each individual viewer of the artist’s specific piece will unconsciously project his/her own anxieties and fears into the artist’s artwork. What drives the individual to censor the artist’s work is the product of their attitudes being reflected in the subject matter of the artwork, and the result of censorship is keeping the artist’s work from being exposed or even from being created.
A mutually supportive relationship between artists and society would be the ideal under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Our society would recognize and support an expanded role for artists. Free and diverse artistic expressions are vital for challenging people to rethink their assumptions and for educating people about past and present issues. We should oppose censorship in the arts, and encourage individual and social expression by artists. Only by supporting the voices and visions of artists representing minority of the mainstream, including women, people of color, and people of alternative sexual orientation can artists truly express themselves. However, this is how it would be in an ideal society. In reality, censorship is common. By examining the life works and experiences of three artists, David Wojnarowicz, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Francisco Goya, the use of censorship and its affects can be understood.
Although modern examples of censorship concerning cultural taboos are almost understandable because of the controversial subject matter, the censorship of art was just as prevalent in the 1700’s in Spain. Censoring was based on protecting public morals, and it took political action in the form of Spain’s Holy Inquisition. Just as the NEA is pressured to works by threat of pulling funding, so was Franciso Goya pressured to self-censor his artwork for fear of losing his job as a court painter. The Inquisition began with censorship of public visual arts anonymously produced, but as Spain experienced the struggle between the church and the Bourbon monarchy it limited all works considered too sexual or anti-Christian. Goya’s painting of “Naked Maja” was his way to “defy the traditional association of the female nude with evil” just as modern day artists, Mapplethorpe and Wojnarowicz fight against society’s taboos with their controversial artworks (132). By self-censoring his artwork he painted the same female but clothed the naked female for the public to see, so his patron, Godoy, could lift the “Clothed Maja” to see the “Naked Maja” (140). However, in response to having to create another painting because of the attitudes of sex held by the Spanish government, Goya made the “Clothed Maja” even more seductive then the first women. We know that near the end of the Inquisition, in 1815, Goya was brought to trail accused of painting obscene naked women, but the results are unknown.
To bring the discussion of Goya up to date, in 1991, a reproduction of Goya’s “Nude Maja” was taken down from a classroom wall at Penn Sate following a complaint form a woman professor that it was a form of sexual harassment. The painting had hung in the music room on campus for more than a decade. The president of the Student government Association called it “ludicrous censorship,” but the Liaison Committee of the Penn State Commission for Women said the female faculty “found it difficult to appear professional when forced to lecture to a class with a picture of a female nude on the wall behind them.” Four other paintings were taken down to avoid a debate over what should and should not be displayed, proving that censorship of Goya is still alive.
David Wojnarowicz is recognized as one of the most potent voices of his generation, and his artistic achievements place him firmly within a long-standing American tradition of the artist as visionary, rebel and public figure. David Wojnarowicz’s work emerged directly from his life. He knew little art history, had no artistic training in high school and he made a paint of not trolling the galleries to see what everyone else was doing. Exposed to unusual hardship as a boy, as a sexually active teen, and as a street person, he did not see his experiences reflected in the popular culture of the members of the dominant white, male, heterosexual, Christian, middle to upper class. Wojnarowicz’s intention is explicitly ideological: his aim is to affect the world at large; he attempts to create imaginary weapons to resist established powers. Wojnarowicz creates provocative narratives and historical allegories dealing with themes of order and disorder, birth and death. using overlapping text, paint, collaged elements, and photography. His source materials include comics, science fiction, news, and mass advertising. Wojnarowicz developed a vocabulary of symbols that took on meaning through careful combinations that played off one another ironically and metaphorically. For example, symbols of the American dream are used as searing comments about American capitalism and violence, and advertisements are transformed into visions of horror, as in his supermarket ad series.
Present in his art is a fusion of eroticism and death, a powerful indication of the rage he felt at how much more attention society gave to killing men rather than loving them. His works suggest many layers of meaning, with implications of the loss of belief in myth, religion and history. People who do not look deeper into his collages can not understand his complex expression of “real-world issues (339).” Instead they take a symbol out of context and get a unclear understanding of the artworks “rendering them indistinguishable from pornography(345).” By labeling his art pornographic, it becomes a target for censorship.
Because Wojnarowicz’s artworks give a supporting voice to the members of minorities, it is no shock that his art strikes fears in individuals that believe they are the “moral center” of society. His art is censored because of the individual’s fear of taboo subjects that are not in the mainstream: issues of homophobia and discrimination against people with AIDS. The “official” censorship of his art came in charges by censorship committees against the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) accusing them of spending “hard-earned tax dollars” to fund Wojnarowicz’s “pornographic and blasphemous art” (335). This pressure on the NEA caused them to drop funding for Wojnarowicz’s exhibits, affecting his ability to use his artist expression by limited its exposure to the public.
Robert Mapplethorpe is also a contemporary American artist who used his artwork to “push sexual frontiers” by using his life as an active member of the gay community in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, to inspire his works (366). His art reflected his life as a gay minority before the concept of an AIDS crisis. He challenged people to think about taboo issues of race and sex through photographs of “nudes, still lives, and celebrity portraits” (367). His more well known works are “The Perfect Moment” catalogue and his “X, Y, and Z portfolios” portraying sadomasochistic homosexual behavior and the sexuality of black men. Mapplethorpe’s photograph of black and white men shocked, enraged, or stimulated different elements in the viewing audience. Twenty years after he photographed some of his initial homosexual friends, many viewers may fail to recognize how Mapplethorpe was pushing the boundaries of sexual behavior in his time. His photography shows his exploration of sexuality was perverse in the extreme. He enjoyed dehumanizing the human. He continuously experimented always accepting anything in his social life, then capturing many issues of his life on film. His photography documents a wide range of pleasure and pain for public review and consideration.
As Mapplethorpe grew in prominence through the early 80s, so did the public controversy surrounding the rise of homosexual advocacy. The debates raging about Mapplethorpe often reflect an undertone of these homosexual arguments. His works are very controversial because they serve as a spring board for cultural debates. An objective examination of many of Mapplethorpe’s photographs suggests a love of the beauty of bodies, devoid of any political or cultural agenda.
When elite intellectuals use their position to convince their peers that by not allowing public view of such controversial materials they protect the Christian morals of the society, then censorship occurs. One such critic was Jesse Helms, who used photographs from “The Perfect Moment” to support his amendment that “barred the use of federal funds to promote, disseminate, or produce obscene or indecent materials” (373). Helm’s did not represent Mapplethorpe’s art to the conference committee as art with a deeper meaning behind the controversial images, but presented the amendment as a strictly pornographic issue. He made the issue seem to be a vote against or supporting pornographic materials supported by tax money, and of course the committee voted to pass the amendment. The result of the committee was the “Miller test” that labeled art as obscene when “the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” (378). But according to whose values? If the jury’s values differ from that of the artist, who defiantly considers his work serious, the artist expression is limited.
Another example was the criticism made by Dr. Judith Reisman who disagreed that Mapplethorpe’s photographs were art because they “failed to express human emotion” because of the sexual images(379). But this statement also requires the question, by whose values? Maybe they do not show human emotion to her because she believes only traditional “beautiful” things can invoke emotion, but they may invoke emotions in other viewers, which is the artist purpose.