– Our First Amendment Rights Are Threatened Essay, Research Paper
What is art? Can it be defined in any single painting, or sculpture? Is it even something that can be seen, or does it have to be experienced? The term “art” is so vague that it can be applied to almost anything, really. Mostly, however, art should be that which frees our imagination. It connects our conscious with our subconscious, putting into a visual form what we feel and think. It allows us to explore our inner self and fill that urge to understand our minds and our universe. Art helps us to see beyond the ordinary, to see what is in our hearts without being blinded by reality. When an artist creates a painting, it is not to create a picture; it is to create a feeling or mood. The purpose is to convey an emotion, and, it is hoped, to make the viewer experience that same emotion. The painting is really just the final result. Picasso once said “?the thing that counts, in painting, is the intention of the artist?What counts is what one wants to do, and not what one does? In the end what was important is the intention one had.”
So, what happens when artists are judged only on their final result, with no consideration to the purpose of their artwork? Censorship happens. That’s right, every day in America, “Land of the Free”, another artist falls victim to The Censor. Everyday, despite rights guaranteed by the constitution, people are being oppressed-by school officials, librarians, committee chairpersons, and even by those in government positions. It’s time everyone, everywhere, stood up for Freedom of Expression, and put and end to censorship.
In September of this year, the Brooklyn Museum of Art planned an exhibit of British artwork entitled “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection”, the controversial art exhibit which, on it’s world tour, has been shown in Germany and England. The exhibit, as well as the majority of other artwork on display in the museum, was to be funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA is a government agency that grants federal money to artists and organizations in an attempt to serve the public good by “nurturing the expression of human creativity, supporting the cultivation of community spirit, and fostering the recognition and appreciation of the excellence and diversity of our nation’s artistic accomplishments”. The organization was prepared to share part of its 98,000 dollars of appropriated funds, until several weeks before the exhibit was to open. At that time, Mayor Rudolph Guiliani, after having viewed the exhibit, threatened to withdraw city financial support to the museum.
The Mayor labeled the exhibit “sick” and “offensive to Catholics”, and made no secret that his objections were based on his personal dislike of the contents of the show. He criticized the work of Chris Ofili, specifically a painting called The Holy Virgin Mary, because of its use of elephant dung. Ofili, a British artist of Nigerian descent, uses elephant dung in many of his works as a reference to his African roots. As an observant Catholic himself, he denies that his work is either anti-Catholic or anti-religious. He meant the dung to be a symbol of life and providence, however this simple explanation was not enough to satisfy Guilani. His threats to withdraw funding stood firm. Offili told the New York Times, “The people who are attacking this painting are attacking their own interpretation, not mine.” Damien Hirst, whose display was also part of the show, said that the mayor “may as well say, ‘I only like Picasso and if you don’t show it then I’m going to cut your funding.’ It’s just pure censorship.” He may be right, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art sued the city on September 28th, protesting the mayor’s threat to freeze millions of dollars in funds.
To the relief of museum officials and art lovers across the country, the courts ruled on November 1st in favor of the Brooklyn Museum of Art and against New York City and Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. Even those who privately disliked “Sensation” and the way it was handled by the Brooklyn Museum couldn’t help but feel that their own fates had been on the line, too. Their interpretation of the First Amendment was at stake, which lets a public museum show work without fear of financial retribution if someone in the government finds the work offensive. The ruling was a narrow victory in the fight against censorship, and it is neither the first nor the last.
There are some that still believe that “the city” has a right to choose what artwork to fund. “People can do what they want to do and they can draw what they want to draw,” but, Senator Bob Smith said, “the government doesn’t have to fund this garbage.” He is not alone in his opinion. New York City official Michael D. Hess sent several letters to the museum’s director, Arnold L. Lehman, warning that the museum “cannot proceed with the exhibit as planned,” and threatened to not only cut funding for the museum, but also warned the museum that it would loose it’s lease if the exhibit was opened as planned. He agreed with Mayor Giuliani’s statement that “where it comes to Catholic bashing, this kind of thing is never treated as sensitively as it sometimes is in other areas. If this were a desecration of a symbol in another area, I think there would be more sensitivity about this than a desecration of a symbol that involves Catholics.” Much of the opposition was based on the idea that if the mayor action, was in the best interest of the city.
The mayors action displayed his lack of respect for the First Amendment rights of the residents of New York, and also his disdain for the reputation of New York City as a world-class center of art and culture. “The entire arts community should be grateful to Director Arnold Lehman and the BMA’s Board of Directors for standing firm on the right of artists and museum-goers to make their own decisions without interference from the government,” said Joan Bertin, Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. “If the city chooses to fund the arts, it simply cannot pick and choose what art is ‘offensive’ and what is not.”
In addition, “That judgment varies so widely and is so subjective that, if it were the test, publicly funded art institutions would likely have little of interest to offer beyond the most inoffensive and conventional art,” Michelle Coffy, Program Director of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, says. It is not appropriate to censor something based solely on a failure to understand and a personal dislike. In this case, the mayor and other critics may simply be revealing their own misinterpretation of the varied cultural and artistic traditions on which artists draw, having obviously misunderstood the whole point of art in the first place-expression.