Is the censorship of art or artistic expression ever justified? As a liberal society, can we condone the removal, limitation and restriction of works or art? Censorship is a highly politicised and culturally loaded term, which we consider utterly at odds with our own societal values. However, a re-evaluation of the practice, and of works and situations which may provoke it, reveals the visceral nature of our reaction to it, and the conclusion that, for all its wicked connotations, a little censorship may not be so evil after all.
To explore the issue of censorship and our attitudes to it, it is probably best to begin with a question. The practice of censorship is always exercised on certain grounds – why should an art work be unfit for public display? The answer is often, quite simply, that it offends or shocks members of the general public who view it. Frequently, however, these upset sensibilities are manifested in more guttural, bodily terms. In 2014, one gallery described its reasoning behind removing a work depicting a nude woman was due to the works “disgusting” nature. This is a common hyperbole in the censorship debate, used by one side to condemn the art in question and the other to decry the practice of its removal. Regardless of the specific direction of the work’s offense – be it due to sexual content, illegality of practice or rather its potential to insult on religious or cultural grounds – disgust is often the word used to describe the feeling provoked by the experience of visual communion with the art object.
In short then, then, our position on the validity of the practice of censorship (both generally and in regard to specific cases) depends on our opinion of a plain statement. To make use of language so often deployed in this arena, does the ‘disgust’ of the public constitute sufficient grounds to limit artistic expression?
The knee-jerk reaction of many liberal minded people would, of course, be no. Perhaps this was your own reaction on reading the question (it was certainly mine). In the UK, it is the norm to scorn reactions considered over-sensitive in other countries. Both the religiously motivated destruction of Abyssinian antiquities by Islamic State, and the politically-edged opposition to unsanctioned nudity provoked by a barely priapic Trump in New York provoke a heady concoction of ‘holier than thou’ outrage and gleeful self-assurance in the British public. What a thrill it is to be given opportunity to congratulate ourselves on our comparative liberalism. We are not fanatics. We are a nation of moderates who refrain from the over-excitement of indignation and shock, simply because we are not easily coaxed into such a state. Censorship does not happen here, because we would not allow it. In defining ourselves in opposition to what we are not, the British become welcoming patrons of art considered too risqué elsewhere. Would we not love a chance to monumentalise our disdain for Trump? With the jewel in our historical crown, Stone Henge, drawing approximately 800,000 visitors a year, do we not preserve with relish evidence of past religions in our own land? Censorship is something which is actively ‘othered’, placed beyond the geographic and ideological limits of our culture.
When censorship does happen within our cultural boundaries, it is in turn framed as alien in a temporal dimension. To take a literary example, burnings of Salman Rushdie’s infamous Satanic Verses (part of a series of Muslim-led protests to the book, made famous by the fatwa issued against the author) occurring in the English cities of Bolton and Bradford in the late 1980s were described by journalist Robert Winder as “medieval”. Mostly, however, the issue of censorship is cast in terms of the Victorian era – an age commended by mainstream politics at the time of Rushdie’s persecution now having gained the reputation of an age of extreme prudery and repression. While tales of their skirting table legs for fear of modesty are modern exaggerations, their simultaneously aversion and obsession with nudity in the arts is well-attested. The triumphant Achilles in Hyde Park only gained its fig-leaf after much exasperated letter writing and petitioning from an appalled public. While countless other examples abound, the general flavour of the Victorian era today is enough to demonstrate the idea of censorship as a thing which only happened here in the past. If it happened here today, it is reminiscent of those less-tolerant times, and not symptomatic of how we feel today.
In placing censorship beyond our own culture, we frame it as something we simply do not understand. In turn, it becomes equated with that which is similarly alien and abominable in the cultures we ascribe it to. If we allow the idea that public disgust at an art work should raise the question of its limitation or removal, it’s a slippery slope down – how long before we limit other things in our culture that disgust some of us? How long before the public ‘display’ of homosexuality becomes a censorable and punishable offense (either officially as it is in many Islamic countries, or unofficially as it is in many American locales)? How long before we are applying that disgust to minority cultures we object to? It is literally inevitable, we reason, that such a trajectory would occur. It is proven in the example of every Brit’s favourite evil: first the Nazi’s mounted their exhibition of degenerate art, next they segregated and exterminated groups distinguished by their disgusting primitiveness, their abominable physical features, their stomach churning deformities. Well, by Winston Churchill, my forebears didn’t head to France and withstand the blitz to have me roll out the red carpet to censorship in 2016!
Regardless of what value you place on art, our fear of censorship is such that we feel, if we begin by limiting artists, we will end by constricting our entire culture into a noxious totalitarian dystopia. If you take it to this extreme or pause for breath halfway down the panic-path, you probably think that such a concession will result in nothing but harm.
Now we’re thoroughly carried away, let’s take a step back. The above conjecture is based on the assumption that, should we accept that disgust is legitimate grounds to restrict artistic freedom, then any disgust will result in total prohibition. This is not quite the matter at hand. So powerful is our cultural aversion to censorship that we make these caveats definite before we have even properly read the sentence. The proposition rather is this: if some people are disgusted, should we consider changing or limiting the nature of the work of art’s display. It is probably best to explore some specific examples of potential controversy before we cast our vote on that. Put aside your fears of imminent fascist takeover, and peek over your Guy Fawkes mask for a few moments while we have a look at some art works that actually have or potentially could be seen as “disgusting”.
To start with, let’s begin with a fairly culturally-loaded example. Above is a picture of a crucifix. It’s not one of the particularly gory, or overtly saccharine and almost sexual renditions – it does not tip the scales as either Grunewald’s Isenheim alatrapiece or Anotello de Messina’s Dead Christ do in these respects. Maintaining the symbolic norms of depictions of the dead Christ, this is not a visually challenging, surprising or controversial image. When displayed in Paris in 2011, however, it provoked outrage, being pelted with ink and eggs, and eventually destroyed by the crowd it had offended. The reason for their outrage is that this is not merely a photo of a crucifix. It is a photo of a crucifix soaking in the artist’s own urine. Now the value of the image changes significantly. Christians who regularly see and even wear the sign of the cross in contact with their skin become outraged by a familiar symbol; those who lack their religious sensibilities may simply be disgusted by the literal representation of an abject bodily fluid. Artist Andrea Serrano defended Piss Christ on the grounds of its value as a meditative aid. Noting that the familiarity of the symbol has removed us from the horror of a grisly execution, the re-insistence on the reality of dying – “he not only bled to death, he shat himself and peed himself to death” – reimagines and conversely revitalises the miracle of salvific sacrifice. Nonetheless, whether we agree with him or the crowds who viewed the work as blasphemous, the physical implications of proximity to piss could easily be understood as disgusting.
Another: Mother and Child (Divided), produced by British artist Damien Hirst. Although, perhaps its more useful to think about this work without attributing it to Hirst; like many YBA’s, he has become characterised (and not undeservedly so) by flagrant courtship of controversy. As with Serrano’s work, whether or not the work is disgusting should be evaluated in terms of how it looks, and how that look might affect those who experience it. Considering we now live in a country where up to 11% of the population are maintain a vegetarian diet, and where the vast majority of us are totally divorced from the process of food production, what are the ramifications of displaying a fully bisected cow and calf in a public space? With Bodyworlds and the like continuing to attract record visitor numbers, perhaps the potential shock of this work is less that what it might be. Nonetheless, it is not unreasonable to suppose many people might find the actuality of the work – a view of the internal organs – disgusting, as they may equally be offended by the commodification of the death of an animal.
If we oppose the statement that disgust may constitute legitimate grounds for restriction, then, in theory, we welcome the prospect that works such as these might be displayed anywhere. Indeed, we welcome the idea that any piece of art might be displayed anywhere too. Marcus Harvey’s Myra installed in the assembly hall of a primary school? Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Children on the wall of a Planned Parenthood clinic? Charlie Hebdo comics as wallpaper in a mosque? Robert Mapplethorpe’s Self-Portrait with a Bull-Whip in the lobby of an old people’s home? If we reject the statement, then we should be comfortable with all of these combinations of work and display, and many (indeed, any) others. If we do not, we must accept that we do find disgust grounds for (at least partial) censorship.
In reality, disgust becomes a much more familiar emotion than we would have supposed, and the idea of censoring the display of art works seems more reasonable. In a gallery, yes, we choose to come in; we know what is there and, especially given the definition-busting prevalent in modern and contemporary art, we know there is a high chance we may be shocked, even disgusted. We have consented to come inside, knowing all that. Given that controversial works usually receive huge publicity, the chances are you will actually know for sure if you are likely to meet one of the wild beasts discussed, or any of their kin. And forewarned, as they say, is for-armed. Like the deep-breath before you jump in the pool, have a blood test, or pull off a plaster, you are able to mentally and physically prepare yourself for the potentially disgusting art you are about to see. That doesn’t limit the power of the work, or diminish your experience of it – if anything it actually allows you to effectively commune with it, rather than blushing and hurrying along from it until you find some less challenging Impressionists (whose stomach churning days were confined to the late 1800s).
Like the panacea of Manets and Degas you might have used to soothe your shock-addled brain, the works which revolt and outrage us today may well be viewed as iconic, classic and beautiful in years to come. The rubbery gorilla with stinking feet and diseased body we now call Olympia has long since been a postcard pin-up; Millais’ snivelling, girly Jesus and his pale, ugly mother are our Christmas card sweethearts (perhaps one day we’ll receive prints of Piss Christ during the festive season instead). These works illustrate the point that outright censorship is not the answer. No matter how challenging a work, it should be seen, and talked about, it maybe even should disgust. Nonetheless, such disgust should be taken into account, both when choosing its place of display, and when considering the conditions of this. Perhaps a sign warning of potentially worrying themes, ‘abandon hope all ye who enter here!’, or just a quick ‘the following artworks contain explicit content; proceed at your own discretion’. Censorship is the artist and the art lover’s big bad wolf, but humans have lived side by side with wolves for millennia, until they became dogs. It is time that we recognise that there is no harm in acknowledging and making allowance for disgust, and a little censorship need not end in the burning of books.
Based on own notes from the University of St Andrews Debating Society’s ‘This House Believes That Social Disgust is Legitimate Grounds for the Restriction of Artistic Expression’.