Self-Censorship By Art Institutions: Is This a Troublesome Trend?

Salman Rushdie once said; “An attack upon our ability to tell stories is not just censorship – it is a crime against our nature as human beings.”

New York’s Met Museum refuses to remove Balthus painting despite petition against promoting pedophilia. Photo courtesy of The Telegraph

In early December 2017, the Metropolitan Museum of Art made a critical statement and set a precedent for the world of art. In response to a vigorous social media protest and over 9,000 signed petitions demanding the removal of a Balthus painting, the Met rejected that request and kept the French-Polish artists’ risque depiction of an adolescent girl. In refusing to comply with the protests, the Met took a bold stand against censorship.

The push to censor art has been around for centuries, and has never been solely limited to art; it occurs across the cultural landscape. Attempts at censorship are particularly concerning when considering the role artists play in our world, and that through their work, our society has a way to express and learn about challenging issues. Criticism of the Balthus piece has been undoubtedly influenced and exaggerated by the very recent upheaval of sexual abuse scandals.

Critics drew connections between the scandals and the painting, and rallied against the sexualization of a minor, as Balthus’ painting depicts. Yet this specific painting is just a metaphor within the overall debate, and it actually serves a great purpose as an example, and as a tool, for unveiling dark secrets. The painting relates desires that do exist in our world; desires that are still very much alive today, and definitely exploited, with or without artwork to capture them as reality. If the Met had shunned the painting, the truth behind it would also be absent from view and dialogue. Without evidence, be it in the form of witness testimony or a painting, we wouldn’t even have a platform for discussion, let alone a solution, to these important issues. 
As Washington Post writer Philip Kennicott shared in his analysis of the Met scandal- “Now is precisely not the time to start removing art from walls, books from shelves, music from the radio or films from distribution. The focus should be on the social structures that perpetuate abuse and the people, mostly men, who commit it.”

Huang Yong Ping’s Theater of the World. Photo courtesy of the Guggenheim.

What makes this all the more important is that across Manhattan, there was a very different story playing out in the prestigious New York art world. The Guggenheim Museum recently exhibited “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” a broad collection of Chinese contemporary art, capturing works produced between 1989, from the onset of the Tiananmen Square protests through 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympic Games. But the exhibit, which closed on January 7th, was missing three notable pieces; Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other, by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, A Case Study of Transference, by Xu Bing, and Theatre of the World, by artist Huang Yong Ping. As celebrated as these artists may be, their works were pulled in a last minute decision by Guggenheim’s Director, Richard Armstrong, summoning plenty of coverage and criticism as to why the Guggenheim made such a decision, and what it means.

 The three pieces are extremely unique, but they all share something in common- each work includes an uncomfortable depiction of animals.

Although the majority of protest took place online, animal rights activists gathered in front of the Guggenheim Museum on September 23rd to protest the planned exhibition of controversial works of art involving animals.

Although the majority of protest took place online, animal rights activists gathered in front of the Guggenheim Museum on Sept. 23 to protest the planned exhibition of controversial works of art involving animals. Photo: Edita Birnkrant

Before the opening, the protesters took on the Guggenheim in a powerful and persistent social media protest, which included a number of outwardly threatening messages. These events are what Director Armstrong claims led to the removal of the contentious works from the final exhibit. Intense criticism quickly followed, and many called out the famed museum for failing to protect the integrity and artistically inherent value of free speech.

It is up for debate as to whether or not the Guggenheim’s response of removing the art due to security threats is justified. Something very important is missing from the logic of the Museum’s decision when one considers the overarching theme of the three works, and the artists’ courageous honesty in capturing the more disturbing and offensive aspects of globalization.

Visitors of the exhibition are thereby missing a unique perspective given by individuals native to a country that places profound limitations on freedom and personal expression. What could be a better source of artistic expression on the issues of globalization and freedom than the works of artists who have personally taken on significant risk to give us a lens into their society? It is sadly ironic that the response of those in the United States, the country known for its love of freedom and democratic rights, equaled a rejection and closure of the exhibit.

This issue also played out in a drama that erupted surrounding artwork created by detainees at Guantanamo Bay. 36 paintings and sculptures by prisoners were curated and exhibited by a professor at Manhattan’s John Jay College for Criminal Justice. The artwork was heavily screened by the military for coded messaging before the exhibition was installed, and the images largely depicted nature, the ocean and horizons. Nothing included in the collection had imagery that viewers could have considered controversial. Although this is understandably a very sensitive source of art for New Yorkers and Americans in general, the reaction once again was more than a bit exaggerated. Protests abounded as to the “decency” of allowing Guantanamo detainees artwork to be showcased at all, especially in a city still mourning and memorializing the September 11 terror attacks.

The Pentagon made several gestures about removing the art, and there were apparent threats to burn it. One of the artists, previously detained at Guantanamo Bay, responded to the pressures by stating that “The US government does not get to decide whether I sell my artwork. I am a free man. I created these drawings and paintings as an expression of my thoughts and feelings. Donald Trump cannot control his own thoughts and feelings, I don’t know why he thinks he can control mine.”

Djamel Ameziane, Shipwrecked Boat (2011), on display at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Credit John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

In the end, the exhibit was abruptly shut down under the guise of threats on Snapchat and the pieces have been retained by the Department of Defense, with assurances that moving forward, prisoner art will not leave the prison. Once again, a major incident of art censorship took place, and this time, it came straight from the federal government.

Another example transpired with the New York based non profit, Artis. Founded in 2004 under the premise of improving the recognition and inclusion of Israeli artists in the international arts, Artis primarily organizes trips for arts professionals to Israel. They also unfairly endured protests and threats in 2016.

Despite Artis’ politically neutral stance and promotion of artists from all backgrounds in Israel, they were accused of whitewashing Israel’s occupation of Palestine and were forced to respond to pressure to join the international BDS movement. Artis works to address the simple, yet critical trend of potential exclusion faced by Israeli artists all over the world. Like the animal-rights protesters facing off against the raw portrayal of globalization at the Guggenheim, Israeli artists can be excluded for simply being from Israel.

By producing video profiles that capture the artist’s talent and expertise, Artis showcases artists that have the potential to inspire aesthetic, social and political questions and to invite reflection and debate. Profiles of musical artist Maya Dunietz, or painter Yair Garbuz, for example, attempt to bring viewers above and beyond the political realm, to see these artists as artists, not as characters in the spectacle of public opinion.

Artis stands out in many regards, but perhaps in particular for the need for an organization like it to exist in the first place. From an outside perspective, it is disturbing to realize how art can be hijacked to support agendas around politics, protests, and ultimately, censorship. This kind of imposition is deeply counterintuitive to the very nature of art.
  There is a strong irony in social media’s role in manifesting censorship. Fundamentally, it is a platform for expression, creating new opportunities every day for people from every point of the globe to engage and converge on every topic and issue under the sun. Yet, by forcing censorship against art, social media, the most limitless and free form of expression, runs in direct opposition to what it claims to represent.

Leaders and institutions in the world of art must consider  the consequences of allowing platforms like Facebook, Twitter and others to overpower and limit the channels of expression they are responsible for protecting and sharing with the rest of the world. They must consider the depth of what is at stake for all of us when dialogue is not allowed, and that the problems and structures some consider disturbing to witness in a museum would still continue to exist in the world, but without recognition, or any hope for change.

For the rest of us, supporters of artistic expression and art of all kinds and critics alike, we must realize that in the current cultural world we live in, torn apart by the politics of division and hate, we need to create a space for understanding, tolerance and positive change.  We must not allow censorship to silence voices that contribute to public debate, regardless of the emotions or opinions those voices potentially provoke, they should be allowed to be heard.

About the Author
Annette Blum is a member of the Synergos Global Activists Circle, the Artists and Educators Board at Center Theater Group, The Milken Global Cenference, the former Clinton Global Initiative and Religions for Peace among others. Recent projects include education, arts and social activism with international venues across the globe. She collaborates annually with the Jerusalem Season of Culture in Israel promoting coexistence and tolerance and with prominent arts institutions in New York and international conferences in Europe and The Middle East.
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