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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Self-censorship doesn't allow for public discourse

click to enlarge SCAD student Nicole Craine's work, censored here by CL
  • SCAD student Nicole Craine's work, censored here by CL

When Gary Black, Georgia's new commissioner of agriculture, takes office Jan. 10, one of his first orders of business will be to chuck art history out the window. That'll be the upshot if he follows through with his plan to banish several George Beattie murals made in 1956 from the Department of Agriculture building. The offense? Two of the paintings depict somewhat sanitized images of slaves at work and one depicts scantily clad Native Americans.

click to enlarge Cinqué Hicks
  • Cinqué Hicks

You'd be forgiven for not having heard of the murals. Even though a few lobby visitors have quietly expressed feeling "disturbed" by the images, they've sat largely undisturbed and unprotested in the downtown building for more than half a century.

Meanwhile, SCAD's had its own plans for playing hide-and-go-seek with art: The annual Open Studio night last October featured the work of fourth-year photography student Nicole Craine, one of whose photos depicted a seated, nude man awkwardly cradling his own scrotum and penis. Although the work had been selected by photography faculty for display, it was pulled, according to Craine, after a last-minute decision by SCAD administrators on grounds that the photo was inappropriate for a "community open house with children in attendance."

2011 marks the dawn of a new decade. It also may mark the dawn of a whole new style of gagging public expression in the arts. Although yanking art from view after public protest has a long history in America, doing so before any significant public protest smacks of a new skittishness that puts civil society itself on the defensive.

Welcome to the "chilling effect." That's what activists called it during the culture wars of the late 1980s and early '90s. Back then, artists and their supporters warned that tactics as diverse as criminal prosecutions of museum personnel and revoking federal grants that supported writings critical of the government sent a clear message: Artists, don't rock the boat. Threats of censorship from above would seem like child's play compared to the self-censorship that arises out of a fear over what might happen if you say something someone doesn't like.

The current poster child for pre-emptive self-censorship is the recent decision by the National Portrait Gallery to pull David Wojnarowicz's uncompleted video work, which featured — among many, many other images — 11 seconds of a crucifix with ants crawling on it. The decision to remove the work is suspect given that it was made largely before any protest could even get off the ground. The Smithsonian debacle sets a dangerous precedent for Atlanta institutions facing similar struggles.

The Atlanta cases cross ideological lines. If you're for one, you may well be against the other. That's why censorship is so nasty: You hone the blade to cut down the thing you hate and, before you know it, it's sharp enough to cut down the thing you love.

The struggle over censorship is usually framed in terms of rights. The artist's right to expression meets the institution's right to enforce standards. But there's a larger right at stake — the right for a free and democratic public to determine the contours of our public speech. Do we want to continually narrow the exchange of ideas or do we want to continually expand it? The public has both the right and the duty to call out institutions, even private ones, that have the power to set the terms of what art counts and what art doesn't.

Yes, Beattie's depictions of Georgia's history of agriculture are out of date. But the Beattie murals aren't alone. Hale Woodruff's gorgeous series of 1951 murals depicting the history of African-American art graces the atrium outside Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries. Nary a woman is to be found among the figures from prehistory up to 1950. Talk about out of date. But to advocate their removal on those grounds would be equally ludicrous. Leaving both Woodruff and Beattie in place tells us how the artists imagined the world at a particular moment in history.

Similarly, Craine's photograph might have raised cogent questions about about how men relate to their own bodies and their own sexuality. Or not. But the artwork has to be out there in the public in order for us to decide.

What the chilling effect chills is the public's access to new ideas. Catholic League President William Donohue watched the Wojnarowicz video on YouTube before raising his objections in letters to Congress. That's understandable. All he wanted was the chance to see it for himself and make up his own mind. Shouldn't we all?

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been updated from it's original version to correctly reflect Donohue's reaction to Wojnarowicz's work.

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