Should we censor art?

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From Aeon:

In 1970, Allen Jones exhibited Hatstand, Table, and Chair: three sculptures of women wearing fetish clothing, posed as pieces of furniture. The sculptures were met with protests and stink-bomb attacks, particularly from feminists, who argued that the works objectified women. Despite the artist’s intentions for this piece – he has since identified as a feminist – the installation became part of an artistic narrative that has, historically, reduced women to passive objects in painting and sculpture.

In 2014, Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B (2012) was shut down at the Barbican in London after protests caused ‘security concerns’. The installation, based on 19th- and early 20th-century ‘human zoos’, showed Black people on display, chained and restrained. Even though the artist – a white South African man – intended the work to expose historic racist and imperialist violence, protesters implored the gallery to censor it: ‘Caged Black People Is Not Art’ read one banner.

And in 2019, an exhibition of Gauguin’s portraits opened at the National Gallery in London with a public debate to address ethical concerns about the artist and his work. Paul Gauguin was a sexual predator, and when in the South Pacific – where he created some of his best-known paintings – he used his colonial and patriarchal privilege to sexually abuse girls as young as 13, knowingly infecting them with syphilis. Indeed, many of us struggle to reconcile an artist’s appalling behaviour with their art: Pablo Picasso was, like Gaugin, a sexual predator, and a misogynist; Leni Riefenstahl was a Nazi and exploited Romani people in her filmmaking; and the sculptor Eric Gill was a paedophile. Often, we can sense the artist’s moral character in their works: Picasso’s views about women, for example, can be detected in many of his late portraits due to his manner of depiction.

These cases, among many more, show that, far from being innocuous objects hidden away in museums and white cubes, artworks are historically informed objects that do things and say things. Artworks are created by people in particular times, responding to specific events and ideals. In The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1981), the philosopher Arthur Danto observed this with his thought experiment: a series of indiscernible red canvases could conceivably constitute completely different artworks, depending on their title, context of presentation, and so on. There is more to a painting or sculpture than its aesthetic forms of colour, line and shape. External properties, such as the artist’s identity and relevant events during the work’s creation, must be considered to fully understand the work. Just how much the artist’s intentions for their art determine that artwork’s meaning is a deep question – one that I can’t answer here. But, in general, most philosophers agree that an artwork can admit of many interpretations, and its meaning often diverges from what the artist intended. Crucially, artworks are communicative objects, the messages of which are partly determined by the surrounding context and are sometimes different to what the artist had in mind.

. . . .

In particular, artworks can express sentiments, including moral ones, through their contextual and visual handling of subject matter. Note how the composition of Titian’s Rape of Europa (1559-62) – painted in a time when sexual violence was often eroticised in art – blurs the lines between refusal and consent. The depicted abduction before the impending sex shows Europa in a precarious – non-consensual – posture. Her erogenous zones are foregrounded, and the event is surrounded with sensuous textures: soft flesh, wet clothing, frothing foam. As the philosopher A W Eaton argues, this painting eroticises the rape it depicts, glamorising an uneven power dynamic that peddles the myth that rape is erotically charged. Indeed, Titian intended his painting to be erotic, outlining in a letter his goal for it to have erotic appeal for the male viewer.

The Rape of Europa (c1559-62) by Titian. Courtesy the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Relatedly, it’s been argued that artworks – particularly pictorial ones – can be the equivalent of ‘speech acts’ – that is, they can be used to do things, such as protest or endorse something. Picasso’s Guernica (1937), which depicts the Luftwaffe air raid that destroyed the town in the Spanish Civil War, has been described as a desolate ‘protest-painting’ and a ‘powerful antiwar statement’. Such actions – protesting, stating – are things we normally do with words. When we speak, we don’t merely express meanings; our words also have what J L Austin in 1955 called ‘illocutionary force’. When an officer shouts to her troops: ‘Open fire!’, she’s ordering them to shoot. But for an utterance to have a particular force, it needs to satisfy certain conditions. To order her troops to fire, the officer must have authority, and she must use words her troops can understand.

While Austin was mainly concerned with linguistic speech acts, he noted how they can also be nonverbally performed: consider silent protests or greeting another person by smiling. Such gestures must still be understood and recognised – what Austin called ‘conventional’. There are conventional gestures within artmaking and curatorial display, too. Recognisable methods of depiction with particular use of perspective and light, visual metaphors, iconographic symbols and curatorial conventions governing display will facilitate a work’s performance of speech acts.

If artworks can be speech acts or, at least, can express meanings with certain forces such as assertion and protest (a claim that requires further defence than I can give here), then presumably they can be harmful acts too, such as in straightforward hate speech – in racist, misogynistic or homophobic language. Hate speech constitutes and sometimes incites violence towards its target group. The utterance of ‘Blacks are not permitted to vote’ by a legislator during apartheid subordinates Black people; it ranks them as inferior, legitimates discrimination, and deprives them of important powers.

In parallel to this are the statues of slave traders and white supremacists. These public memorials don’t just represent a particular person – they literally put them on a pedestal. Through various aesthetic conventions, statues commemorate and glamorise the person and their actions and, in doing this, they rank people of colour as inferior, legitimising racial hatred. As the mayor of London Sadiq Khan said after a monument to the 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston was torn down in Bristol in June 2020: ‘Imagine what it’s like as a Black person to walk past a statue of somebody who enslaved your ancestors. And we are commemorating them – celebrating them – as icons…’ And look again at Jones’s sculptures. The male artist depicted women as furniture within a society where women are still treated as secondary citizens. Regardless of the artist’s intentions, it’s thus plausible to interpret the work as amounting to a kind of sexist speech: it subordinates women by depicting us as household objects, ranking us as inferior and legitimising misogynistic attitudes.

Artworks speak, act and have concrete consequences for people’s lives. Recognising artistic speech or expression reveals a distinctive potential harm towards marginalised groups. So how should we manage it?

Link to the rest at Aeon

PG notes that nobody was raped to create Titian’s painting. Nobody was enslaved to create the statues of slave traders and white supremacists.

“Speech acts” are a contradiction in terms. Speech is speech and acts are acts. Anyone can speak without acting or act without speaking about it first.

Under English Common Law (and that Common Law as incorporated in the legal systems of many states in the US), very few types of speech are inherently punishable. One of the main exceptions is speech that incites, or is likely to lead to, violence or illegal actions. There has to be a close relationship between such speech and the harmful actions it incites.

In a hundred-year-old US Supreme Court case, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote: “The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.” Holmes cited the example of a person who falsely shouts “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, causing a panic.

The fire-in-a-crowded-theater statement of Justice Holmes was not particularly on point for most types of disagreeable speech that some authorities attempted to ban. In Hess v. Indiana (1973), the Court provided a more useful test in holding that before an individual’s speech could fall under the unprotected category of incitement to imminent lawless action, the speech must lead to “imminent disorder.”

To be frank, PG must admit that (in his loudly humble opinion) the courts still have some work to do to perfect a clear standard between speech that a government entity can prohibit and speech which it cannot.

However, PG is quite comfortable that speech which does not have a clear causal connection to some sort of illegal action on the part of those to perceive the speech is not something that anyone should try to prevent on a general basis, with or without government assistance.

Bringing this back to Titian, PG is not aware of anyone who has seriously argued that his painting was ever an incitement to an actual sexual assault. He is also not aware of any serious argument that a statue of a slave trader ever caused someone to enslave someone else.

PG suggests that the argument that an artistic expression in whatever form should be officially suppressed because it might make someone feel bad is the slipperiest of slippery slopes.

In order to justify any sort of public action to remove the art object, the relevant government authorities have to assign a higher value to one person’s or one group’s reaction to the object than is assigned to the value of the responses of others who aren’t bothered by the object or simply ignore it because it’s unimportant to them.

PG is not necessarily opposed to a referendum in which the majority of the relevant residents of a community vote to remove a statue which is in general public view in the community and which is owned by the community.

He is concerned when a small group of people with sensibilities that are not shared by the larger mass of those who view an object create some artificial and abstract construct like a “speech act” as a basis for destroying or removing an object that is enjoyed or regarded as harmless by a much larger group of people. For him, there is always a whiff of dictatorship floating around the activities of such groups that is profoundly disturbing.

For authors, is to write about a slaver the equivalent of promoting slavery or to depict powerful sexual arousal on the part of a woman when she encounters a highly-attractive man (or woman) the equivalent of illegal or punishable actions on the part of the individual who writes such descriptions?

As usual, PG is happy to have any shortcomings in his blathering pointed out. He does hope that his blathering is not regarded as the equivalent of any sort of act on his part.

7 thoughts on “Should we censor art?”

  1. I would offer an opinion that this desire is driven by the mechanism of Thought-Action-Fusion, rather than dictatorship per se. Though I would agree it does lead to being exploited as a way to provide an answer that is dictatorship, but I quibble.

    Thought-Action-Fusion is the belief that if you write down or say something really horrible, like the love of my life, my wife has just been in a horrible road traffic accident, which has left her paraplegic that it will come true, or such a disgusting thing to say that it is morally wrong and repugnant.

    When I was taught this, out of a class of 23, only two of us were able to write down the above example.

    This mechanism is one of the underlying drivers for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and magical thinking. As Heinlein would say, We are not rational beings, but beings that rationalize our choices.”

  2. Well, it is a truism that you really shouldn’t, in fiction, “kill the dog” (unless it is absolutely, positively necessary to the plot). People will hate you forever.

    I have to say, even as a writer myself, I sympathize with that point of view. I was permanently turned off Larry McMurtry in his Lonesome Dove series when he introduced a really interesting bit character, a young girl who was leading an independent and unusual life, and then killed her in passing just to indicate to the main characters that the bad guys had gone by. There’s an element of sadism to that which I find abhorrent. You can make the bad guys’ trail clear in other ways.

    McMurtry was obviously just doing that for the shock value (it’s a trope of his), but I would have been less offended if he’d killed off a main character, or even just an adult, for the same purpose. He made the readers invest in the character before he threw her away. This was a version of “killing the dog” that made me stop reading him.

    There is something peculiarly repellent in creating and then destroying the innocent for mere expedience. It doesn’t matter that they’re fictional — the mind that can do that is not a mind I want to meet. Guess I’m squeamish.

    Now, disaster stories do produce vignettes and show wholesale and sometimes ironic deaths, but there it’s the point of the entire story — that disasters do that. You could not tell such stories without that. It’s the disaster’s fault, if you will, not the writer’s.

    My imagination was formed on traditional tales. They often increase the success of the hero by showing how others before him have failed (and died trying, perhaps horribly). But you’ll notice that you don’t know much about those other characters — the point is not that you are invested in them, it’s just that they exist for the suspense and contrast. It takes a modern (decadent?) writer to twist the knife in the way McMurtry enjoys where, since he can play god in his fictional world, he can punish anyone he wants to and just blame it on “reality”. But it’s not reality that makes us invest in a character — it’s the writer.

    • Kill the dog? How about Game of Thrones? He’s whacking characters left and right.

      I have always figured those who go on the most about the meaning of art can find all the same things in any random ink blot. They are expressing themselves, and simply using a convenient springboard.

      And fully understanding a work of art? I confess. I doubt I have ever attempted to fully understand a movie. Quick… Who directed the last movie you saw? What can you tell us about his early childhood and education?

      • Well, yes, I’m not fond of GRRM either, for similar reasons. I have read & watched them, because they are marvels of construction, but they are not worlds and characters I admire, by and large. And, like McMurtry, he does love to introduce us to puppies in order to crush them (metaphorically speaking).

        Actually, I do know a good bit about art film directors, and Truffaut is one whose personal quirks are a staple of his films (turned into art). But, yes, I agree that the personal lives of creators are fairly irrelevant most of the time, and I’m not looking to create an enemies list.

        Still… as a reader, in some cases (for writers), you can clearly see what they enjoy doing. I don’t care if a writer relishes the destruction of virtue in genres for which that is a staple. He can do it all day long for all I care, with the main characters. It’s what he does with the trivial characters, the ones whose lives are unimportant, whose fates don’t matter, in works that aren’t over-the-top “comic” or “black humor” (e.g., zombies) that strike me as “tells” about his attitude toward stepping on beetles. The works of some such writers I find revolting, and it does wash over to taint them to me altogether. Privately — I’m not talking about censorship, a concept I altogether reject.

        Tastes vary, of course.

        • Are you familiar with the term “fridging”?
          It has become shorthand for “women in refrigerators”.

          More often tban not it is a sign of laziness rather than of sadism but either way it is a form of bad writing as it is rarely truly necessary. (Nonetheless, some writers I’d be leery of meeting in the real world.) In fact the less significant the character, the less defensible it is. It trivializes something that in real world terms should never be trivialized.

          As to the origin of the fridging discussion, Simone has over the decades proven to be a very good writer in her chosen field of superhero fantasies. Marz…not quite.

          (BTW, there is a parallel history for black characters, usually males, in team comic books going back decades across most forms of pop culture. Very common at Marvel, even in video (CIVIL WAR, FALCON & WINTER SOLDIER, and decades worth of comics. Still going on.)

          And, of course, we have STAR TREK’s history with Redshirts and goldshirts. Lazy writing every step of the way.

  3. I’m of the school that if you don’t like a book, stop reading it. If you don’t like a film or show, leave the theater. If you don’t like something you hear on the radio, TV, or internet, change channels or turn it off. And so on. Art is a totally subjective experience. It’s unreasonable for me to expect — or demand — that you feel the same way that I do about any given creative work. Also, in the same way that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, message in an artwork is in mind of the perceiver. As well, what some people think is an artist’s intent to incite with their work is actually the artist’s strong reaction to something, and they are attempting to express a feeling about it and/or put whatever the issue is into the public eye so other people will think about it, too.

  4. I think there’s a difference here between “work of art” and “by whom and how it is made available to the public” that exposes at least part of why there’s so much struggle (“lack of clear standards” is a horrific understatement) over “speech acts” and darned near everything else. There’s a huge difference among:

    A privately published book that espouses some opinion, or depicts in words a character/scene, that is unsavoury (e.g., American Psycho);

    A museum displaying a work of art depicting a scene connected to something unsavoury, particularly years or centuries after the work was created and without connection to the context of its creation (e.g., The Rape of Europa); and

    A government body sponsoring, through continued display and potential fines for disfigurement, a display on public land of a heroically-posed figure whose life was devoted to oppressing a distinct element of the community that government purportedly governs/represents (to choose a slightly-less-inflammatory example, the new statue described by Rowling at the Ministry of Magic in book 7, with the Muggles being trampled underfoot by their rightful-by-descent masters the trueborn Wizards).

    How one might analyze the book in relationship to “free speech versus oppression” is not how one should analyze the statue. And vice versa. That doesn’t mean that people won’t, though; I grew up in a school district with a long, looooooooong history of censorship, including a board member who tried to have an acclaimed novel removed from both the curriculum and school libraries because it “fostered disrespect for authority” (Mr Bradbury would have sagely nodded, and I know that because he did when I described it to him a few years before his death).

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