There are two ways to define censorship in the world of fine art: narrowly, as in the barring or removal of an artwork, or broadly, encompassing any limitation on artistic freedom. Censorship in the narrow sense is rare in this country, and when it does occur, it is usually only when freedom of expression comes into conflict with other laws, such as those prohibiting child pornography, obscenity, and sexual harassment. There are no federal laws against blasphemy in the United States (although Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ was part of the evidence used by legislators seeking to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts back in the 1980s) nor against offending the sensitivities of a particular group—religious, ethnic, racial, the disabled or otherwise—although various advocates of such groups have protested loudly when artists have used imagery or historical references that they find objectionable.
This scenario has been played out on several occasions in recent months. As was reported on these pages back in March, the painter—I should say the white painter—Dana Schutz sparked protests at the Whitney Museum, in response to her reference to the murder of Emmett Till in her work Open Casket, featured in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. A handful of protesters went so far as to stand in front of the painting to block viewers from seeing it, and many more later offered a highly publicized call for the painting’s destruction. “[I]t is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun,” a leader of the protest group announced, to which Schutz immediately responded that her painting would never be sold.
In May, (the white artist) Sam Durant’s sculpture Scaffold, which offered a stark depiction of the gallows used in state-sanctioned executions over the years and which had been installed in the Minneapolis-based Walker Art Center’s sculpture garden, was the subject of protests from Native American groups who resented its visual reference to the members of the “Dakota 38,” who were executed in 1862. Just as with Open Casket, the groups claimed that their history was being appropriated, co-opted, and trivialized for profit, if not for fun. “It’s really traumatizing for our people to look at,” a member of the Dakota tribe told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Durant, whose 2008 work End White Supremacy is currently on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, issued a statement of remorse—“I just want to apologize for the trauma and suffering that my work has caused”—and agreed that Scaffold should be both removed and burned in a Dakota-led ceremony.
Yet another white artist, the Cleveland painter and sculptor Tom Megalis, found himself in hot water this past May when his painting Within 2 Seconds, the Shooting of Tamir Rice, which expressed his outrage over the 2014 shooting of a twelve-year-old African American boy by a police officer, was accepted into the annual Three Rivers Arts Festival in Pittsburgh. Megalis posted a video of himself talking about the work on Facebook, and the response from critical African American groups and individuals, online and in the press, was immediate and severe. As a result, Megalis took down the Facebook video and withdrew the painting from the arts festival. “I needed to stop the pain, out of respect,” he told a reporter.
A lot of questions are raised in all this. Is history proprietary to one group? (May only Native Americans with sufficient “blood quantum” present artworks or commentaries about Native American history?) Are artists to be restricted to the confines of their racial, religious, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds in terms of the subjects they may pursue?
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of these three instances of censorship, which involved three left-leaning artists and two progressive art institutions, is the failure of the individuals and museums involved to forcefully support the right of artists to express themselves in the face of minority-group objections. Liberals will stand up to right-wing censors, as they did when the North Carolina senator Jesse Helms attacked the work of Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, and several performance artists whose work defied cultural norms and crossed boundaries of taste. And yet, when the claims of offense are heard coming from the Left, the response from institutions is eager acquiescence.
Dana Schutz’s promise never to sell Open Casket, Sam Durant’s willingness to remove and burn Scaffold, and Tom Megalis’s decision to withdraw Within 2 Seconds from a major regional art fair reflect the now-widespread unwillingness to do more than cower when one’s sensitivity is challenged by minority groups (to their credit, the curators of the Whitney Biennial did release a statement that affirmed the right of “artists to explore . . . critical issues”). Sensitivity never has been, and never should be, a criterion for judging artwork. Historically, artists always have allowed their imaginations to roam globally and through time. The pertinent factors in assessing art must be the artist’s aims and how well he or she accomplished them, and not whether the artist has the right to examine a particular subject.
At about the same time that the controversy over Piss Christ was taking place, a group of black Chicago aldermen marched into the administrative offices of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to remove a painting (which they tore in the process) called Mirth and Girth that depicted the then-recently deceased Chicago Mayor Harold Washington in flimsy negligee. The aldermen then marched into the school president’s office and threatened to burn the painting. The picture was eventually impounded by the police and returned to the artist, an SAI student named David Nelson, who proved somewhat difficult to find for a period of time as he had gone into hiding. The school administration did not press charges against the aldermen—“That would have been perceived as adding fuel to the fire,” said Roger Gilmore, then dean of the SAI—but instead took out full-page ads in Chicago newspapers apologizing for the “distress” that Mirth and Girth might have caused. (I defy anyone to explain the pedagogic value of apologizing for a work of art, although it certainly offered a lesson to students in how a liberal’s knees can be made to buckle.)
Admittedly, certain controversial subjects may need to be handled with tact and discretion, but even when they aren’t, the artists who depict them retain their right to express themselves. There is no third way between speaking truth (or irony) to power and respecting the sensitivities of one or another group. Artists and the institutions that show their work must affirm this right.