Friday, September 19, 2014

Revisiting Censorship: Where would you draw the line?

by Joe Nalven

Talking about censorship is a major project. I plan on taking a minimalist approach by focusing on a few examples from San Diego with a work that was recently censored and another that I would have censored.  The issue is not really about being right or wrong or whether some art ought or ought not to be censored, but about where to draw the line?  I am sure everyone has those moments of wanting to shut out a point of view.  So, where are our values on where to draw the line and whether to impose those values on an art exhibit?

But first, let us look at some REAL censorship - not the kind that simply excises an artwork or individual from an individual. 

Severe Modern Censorship Examples  

We are likely familiar with the Taliban Islamic militants blowing up the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan and about the fanatic who killed Theo Van Gogh in Amsterdam as well as threatening co-producer Ayaan Hirsi Ali with death for making a movie (Submission) about the liberation of Islamic women from religious intolerance. 

And what about the Russian artist Lev Galperin (1886-1938) whose only remaining painting hangs in the Nukus Museum (also known as the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art) in the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan (within Uzbekistan)? The Nukus Museum is ostensibly known as the repository of banned Soviet Art, built on the collection of Igor Savitsky. Savitsky is credited for saving some 40,000 artworks from the Soviet Union. A movie with Sally Field, Ed Asner and Ben Kingsley pay tribute to Savitsky's sly rescue of these artworks, pretending to buy state-approved art and then moving these unapproved artworks to the desert of Uzbekistan.

Lev Galperin / On His Knees

Now, that makes censorship an existential issue.

And what happened to Galperin when he protested at his Soviet trial for making counter-revolutionary art?  His death certificate read: "Cause of death: execution by shooting.”

Censorship in the United States  

Yes, we have left-wing and right-wing censorship issues in the United States; censorship issues by atheists and by religionists; censorship issues by various ethnic groups and gender.  Some of these issues can be viewed through the prism of the three-prong test (for obscenity) set out in Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973) or left to a decision by whoever is in charge in the face of a public protest. 

These issues do not appear to reach the crescendo of outrage in the examples cited above that have occurred outside the United States. (Send me examples to the contrary.)

When I bring the subject of censorship up relative to art exhibits, a frequent response is that there is artistic freedom and the juror or curator's view cannot be challenged. But would you hold out for that perspective in all cases? As your personal opinion? Weighed against community standards?

With these questions in mind, let us consider several primarily San Diego based issues (that may invoke a national conversation as well) and see whether censorship should or should not have been imposed. 

Removal of S.V. Walters Installation at the Centro Cultural de la Raza

Silvio Nicholas Walters' described his concept of Miss Hispanidad International as a "mashup of indigenous culture and high-end fashion." (Kinsee Morlan, CityBeat)  For an artist who is a fashion designer from Los Angeles, the pop culture transformation of Native Americans is understandable.

However, the community reaction, and from those involved with the Centro Cultural de la Raza (minus the curators), the reaction was otherwise -- more one of horror at what Walters' was doing with the feminine concept within Native American culture: 

Carmen Sandoval, Board President of the Centro Cultural de la Raza, is quoted as saying, 

"Many among our community stakeholders felt it was cultural appropriation, hyper-sexualization of indigenous women and not inconsistent with the Centro mission. The Board asked the artist to remove. We are within our rights to remove it. It is clearly stated on the agreement he signed."(James Chute, UTSanDiego)

Installation by Silvio Nicholas Walters / Miss Hispanidad International
The installation was removed prior to the exhibit's opening and the two curators of the Centro's Matices exhibit, Rogelio Casas and Marisol De Las Casas, resigned.

A first response might be that those of us who are not cultural insiders to Native American and/or Latino cultures would not fully appreciate the apparent disrespect felt by the Centro's Board. We might patronize this decision as too PC, too culturally sensitive.

Another response might be to read about Miley Cyrus' (pop queen of new wave vulgar) recent exploit in Mexico on its Independence Day celebration. We in the U.S. tolerate extensive disrepect for our flag as a form of free speech; however, Mexican legislators in Mexico were tested by Cyrus' performance with the Mexican flag:

Mexico lawmakers seek to fine Miley Cyrus for flag spank while twerking
(Reuters) -- A Mexican state legislature has asked the country's federal government to fine singer Miley Cyrus after one of her dancers spanked Cyrus's backside with a Mexican flag as she "twerked" during an independence day performance.

Cyrus, 21, who has grabbed headlines for her admitted drug use, sexually suggestive dancing and wearing as little as a pair of boots in a music video, was performing in Monterrey in the northern state of Nuevo Leon.

Local lawmaker Francisco Trevino said that the Nuevo Leon state legislature had approved a warrant for the Interior Ministry to enforce the law on use of the flag.

Bad taste often puts the artist in a bad light, but there are those that would exhibit and delight in bad taste as a badge of artistic freedom.  

Does that always work? Is it simply that 'to each his own' and that 'beauty is in the eyes of the beholder'?  That there are no longer any standards?  Just what is the latest fashion?

How about Violence Against Women?

There have been considerable public outcries against violence against women - against misogyny in hip hop culture and against players in the National Football League.

It is hard to imagine that anyone would be for violence against women, but when one looks at all its manifestations listed by the World Health Organization, one needs to take a second look, especially to the extent that such violence is espoused in art (not in condemnation, but in glorification of such violence).

From the Wikipedia article on Violence Against Women:

  5.1 Rape
        5.1.1 Marital
        5.1.2 Violence against victims
    5.2 Domestic violence
        5.2.1 Diagnosis planning
        5.2.2 Honor killings
        5.2.3 Dowry violence
        5.2.4 Acid throwing
        5.2.5 Forced marriage
    5.3 Mob violence
    5.4 Stalking
    5.5 Sexual harassment
    5.6 Human trafficking and forced prostitution
    5.7 Mistreatment of widows
    5.8 Accused of witchcraft
    5.9 State violence
        5.9.1 War rape and sexual slavery during military conflict
        5.9.2 Forced sterilization and forced abortion
        5.9.3 Violence by the police and other authority figures
        5.9.4 Stoning and flogging
    5.10 Female genital mutilation
        5.10.1 Interventionist approaches
        5.10.2 As a public health issue
        5.10.3 As a human rights issue
        5.10.4 Debates about best approaches
    5.11 Breast ironing
    5.12 Obstetric violence
        5.12.1 The fight for a more humane and respectful birth
        5.12.2 Legal action against obstetric violence
    5.13 Sport-related violence against women
        5.13.1 Sport-related violence by male college athletes
        5.13.2 Controversy over contributing factors
        5.13.3 Response to violence by male college athletes

Lyrics and Violence Against Women - and its Translation into Visual Art

Consider the following two excerpts from pop songs.

1.  Expressway to Yr Skull by Sonic Youth

We're gonna kill
the California girls
we're gonna fire the exploding load in the milkmaid maiden head
we're gonna find the meaning
of feeling good
and we're gonna stay there as long as we think we should 

Killing all the California girls?  Metaphorical? Satire? Testosterone on fire? Clearly, one can read the lyrics in many ways, especially if one contextualizes the meaning.  Standing alone, without more, leaves the lyric as free-standing misogyny. Or perhaps not. 

2. Let's test these lyrics against that of Jasper Dolphin and Tyler, the Creator.

Punch your bitch in her mouth just for talkin' shit / 

You lurkin' bitch? Well, I see that shit / 
Once again I gotta punch a bitch in her shit 

The article, Misogyny in Hip Hop Culture analyzes these and related lyrics: 
Scholars have proposed various explanation for the presence of misogyny in hip hop culture. Some have argued that rap artists use misogynistic lyrics and portrayals as a way to assert their masculinity or to demonstrate their authenticity as rappers. Others have suggested that rap music is a product of its environment, reflecting mainstream attitudes toward women, and that hip hop artists have internalized negative stereotypes about women Still other academics have stressed economic considerations, arguing that rappers use misogyny to achieve commercial success.

So, would a visual artist who excerpted part of the lyrics from either Expressway to Yr Skull or Bitch S__k D__k become an acceptable excuse -- 'it's OK to state violence against women because it is in a song.'  

Or does that connected visual art/misogynistic lyrics become part of the problem of violence against women?  Especially if there is no connected explanation that states that the visualization is meant to condemn such violence rather than glorify it. Without any context, one can easily draw the negative inference.

Here are the visualizations of the two sets of lyrics. I've created a hypothetical of the Dolphin/Tyler hip hop song with the visual of Janay Parker being punched by football player Ray Rice in the now infamous elevator scene.

Colin Burns / We're Gonna Kill the California Girls (Left); Joe Nalven hypothetical / The Elevator Punch (Right)
At last, dear reader, we can now consider the artist's image (and juror's selection).

Is there a difference between the visual image (as poster art) on the left and on the right? The left image's text is certainly more violent (kill vs. punch) while the image itself appears less violent on the left compared to the video excerpt of a real punch on the right. 

Such an explanation is one without a difference if analyzed within the context of violence against women. The Burns' image is on display but simply noted as an invited artwork (invited by the juror). 

I provide no answer, but simply underscore the easy dismissal of some art as freedom of expression while the world around is outraged by the described act. 

How about Racism in Art?

Racism is equally part of the discussion about the artist's free expression. Clearly, everyone is entitled to their thoughts, but what about a juror or curator selecting an obviously bigoted image to be included in an art exhibit?  We can understand the barbed nature of good satire, but what if the artist really, really believes it and the juror selects such an image for an exhibit? 

Is it simply artistic license (for the artist) and the juror's prerogative (the cavalier excuse)?

From my perspective, this problem would go away for the most part if there were a point/counterpoint - of an equally barbed noxious image cancelling each other out. That would satisfy the requisite artistic license and a comment of 'a pox on both your houses' by the juror or curator. 

However, the field submitted to a juror rarely has a point/counterpoint image. The final result speaks to the juror's bias and ratification of the message. 

Consider these two images. The one on the left was shown at an exhibit in San Diego nearly ten years ago. The one on the right is the counterpoint - one with an opposite bias. The bias of the original image declares that National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is from the progressive left, alleging that Rice is an Uncle Tom and a liar; the image on the right (my hypothetical counterpoint) substitutes National Security Advisor Susan Rice in the same concept of Uncle Tom and liar and represents a criticism from the conservative right. 

If these had been juxtaposed together, the viewer could step back and laugh at the parody - even though the tinge of insider resentment (being an Uncle Tom) persists. 

Given the ongoing debate about race in our society (as well as elsewhere in the world), even the juxtaposed images may not be satisfactory.  Here, the artist inserts him- or herself into a dispiriting aspect of human relations only to make things worse. A cartoonist is known for oversimplifying to make the satiric point; but does one expect more of an artist (as a fine artist)? 

Would the better result have been for the juror to resist ratifying the partisan political attack in the first place?  I leave the reader to clarify his or her own juror (or curator) decision process and be forthright about acknowledging that bias given the opportunity to craft an exhibit. It is important to note that Terri Lloyd's Uncle Tom's Condi Rice was given an Honorable Mention for this exhibit.

Terri Lloyd / Uncle Tom's Condi Rice (Left) / Joe Nalven Hypothetical / Suzi Rice (Right)
The subject of censorship in art is a messy one, but one that can be adequately analyzed if sufficient care is given to cultural analysis. I commend the article by Lisa Nakamura, Digitizing Race, that deals with how video culture de-racinates Asian and Latina women.

The perspective I've outlined in this article may not be complete and others are welcome to share their own views. 

Nevertheless, I have argued that artists and jurors and curators and those who manage art exhibits have an ethical obligation to value life in how it is portrayed - not in a simplistic or Disneylandish way, but making clear that when the ugly side of life is portrayed that one is not glorifying it - unless, of course, that is the ethics one espouses. 

The abdication of responsibility ("I have complete artistic freedom") in this area will not go away soon.

Note:  The author has taught cultural anthropology for more than twenty years interspersed with being an attorney and sundry other experiences. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not those of his professional associations.


  1. Provocative and a conversation that warrants more discussion and Thought.

  2. Who decides? Censorship is just plain wrong. It is too often used by the ones with power to take voice away from those with none. The FBI closed down a work critical of Dubya during his reign of terror. Guilani waged war on Lehmans choice of Puss Christ for Sensation. One judge in a federal building disliked tilted arc enough to ultimately get it removed. I vote with my feet and my dollars. No need to censor the opposition.

  3. Hi Joe,

    Glad you are writing about censorship. Other issues you might bring up in your writing about censorship, are repercussions from censorship and artists self censoring. When Fran Adler and I had our When the Bough Breaks: Pregnancy and the Legacy of Addiction in the California State Capital, sponsored by Senator Lucy Killea and the March of Dimes, the authorities tried to censor half our show.

    We called in the ACLU and had a meeting with about 20 people in Senator Killea's office. One by one, they backed down on all but one of our framed artworks. The reasons ranged from "a crib on a baby's grave being too disturbing to children" a photo I took on a baby's grave that went with a woman's story about her drinking when pregnant and losing the child - to a woman half nude reflected in a mirror and emaciated from drug addiction.

    After Fran and I left Sacramento, the authorities took our show down 3 days later, when it was supposed to be up a month. They then made a rule that "no political art" could be shown. WE VERY carefully made sure that all sides of the issue of drug and alcohol use during pregnancy were in the exhibit, our sponsors were nonprofits and bipartisan. When they tried to censor the show, they removed all the compassion and left only blame. The California Commission on Alcohol and Drug Addiction quote was censored too, "....we have to get this back to a health issue, or we will never stop it."

    The artwork would have gotten more press over the issue of censorship than the issue affecting poor pregnant women trying to get health care. So we were told later that they chose to wait until we left town to remove the art.

    The book was printed a while after this, by NewSage Press and is still available and on Amazon.

    Our book was also nominated at the "Best book for teens by the American Library Association."

    It is interesting to note that this same exhibition traveled for over a year to 19 states, hung in congress and senate buildings and no one else tried to censor the art exhibition. Here are a few pages from our book on this...

    Kira Carrillo Corser
    One Billion Rising Collaboration with Arts On Purpose
    510.684.4651 cell

  4. Great piece,Joe. Of course where public money is involved in promoting or sponsoring art, or where public bodies have something to say about it, "censorship" issues come up big time.

    Both the NEA and HEH were hot beds for this as you know. I do generally think that publicly sponsored or administered art has more of a responsibility than the privates not to offend . That's sort of paradoxical, because it's only the publics that have to honor are any sort of first amendment type requirements. The privates in my view can do just about anything that falls short of hate speech , or violence , or anything else illegal that might go on in a gallery. I mean, you can't, turn a gallery into a brothel , or a betting parlour, and say that it's art.

  5. South African theater director Brett Bailey’s recreation of a 19th-century human zoo has been cancelled in London after large protests outside the Barbican, where it was on view. The work, which features caged black actors, has been accused of being racist. “It became impossible for us to continue with the show because of the extreme nature of the protest and the serious threat to the safety of performers, audiences and staff,” read a statement released by the Barbican. “We find it profoundly troubling that such methods have been used to silence artists and performers and that audiences have been denied the opportunity to see this important work.”

  6. It would have been the professional thing to have asked Terri Lloyd about using her image in this particular discourse. I believe that's the etiquette. Instead, she ended up finding it through an arbitrary google search.

  7. Terri, I agree that all images used in bloggers that use images are not part of a specific report on an exhibition, should seek permission to use the image. I have asked Joe Nalven to respond to your comment. If we hear nothing from him, then I will be glad to remove the image from the report if that is that is your request. Do let us know. Patricia Frischer coordinator, SDVAN

  8. Dear Terri, Here is the response form Joe Nalven: Please feel free to comment back.

    "As part of educational research and as a matter of opinion, one can use images and sounds under the fair use exception to copyright law, especially if one isn't reselling the art object.

    In this case, Lloyd's image - and the counterpoint image - serve an important part of a dialogue about race, politics and satire. This is not a closed system but one that invites a broad response.

    Perhaps as an academic, I am more open to the give-and-take of debate. In this sense, Terri Lloyd should respond about her intent about her original image and how she views the satirizing of the satirist.

    More commentary is better than narrowing the discussion about this social issue. The discussion should be a multi-faceted one."