Controversy And Censorship In Art Essay

Censorship is usually considered “official” censorship because it is action taken by governmental institutions such as government committees, or universities, to limit the view of a specific artwork or a group of works by the public. However, these concrete official actions taken to limit public view of specific artwork are only the results of the abstract “censoring attitudes” of individuals or groups of individuals, encouraging the actions. Censoring attitudes can arise from feelings of race or gender discrimination, discrimination against the gay community, fear of taboos and controversially issues, and assumed moral or Christian authority. It is these attitudes that are the basis of censorship, not necessarily the artist’s intentions of their artwork, because each individual viewer of the artist’s specific piece will unconsciously project his/her own anxieties and fears into the artist’s artwork. What drives the individual to censor the artist’s work is the product of their attitudes being reflected in the subject matter of the artwork, and the result of censorship is keeping the artist’s work from being exposed or even from being created.

A mutually supportive relationship between artists and society would be the ideal under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Our society would recognize and support an expanded role for artists. Free and diverse artistic expressions are vital for challenging people to rethink their assumptions and for educating people about past and present issues. We should oppose censorship in the arts, and encourage individual and social expression by artists. Only by supporting the voices and visions of artists representing minority of the mainstream, including women, people of color, and people of alternative sexual orientation can artists truly express themselves. However, this is how it would be in an ideal society. In reality, censorship is common. By examining the life works and experiences of three artists, David Wojnarowicz, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Francisco Goya, the use of censorship and its affects can be understood.

Although modern examples of censorship concerning cultural taboos are almost understandable because of the controversial subject matter, the censorship of art was just as prevalent in the 1700’s in Spain. Censoring was based on protecting public morals, and it took political action in the form of Spain’s Holy Inquisition. Just as the NEA is pressured to works by threat of pulling funding, so was Franciso Goya pressured to self-censor his artwork for fear of losing his job as a court painter. The Inquisition began with censorship of public visual arts anonymously produced, but as Spain experienced the struggle between the church and the Bourbon monarchy it limited all works considered too sexual or anti-Christian. Goya’s painting of “Naked Maja” was his way to “defy the traditional association of the female nude with evil” just as modern day artists, Mapplethorpe and Wojnarowicz fight against society’s taboos with their controversial artworks (132). By self-censoring his artwork he painted the same female but clothed the naked female for the public to see, so his patron, Godoy, could lift the “Clothed Maja” to see the “Naked Maja” (140). However, in response to having to create another painting because of the attitudes of sex held by the Spanish government, Goya made the “Clothed Maja” even more seductive then the first women. We know that near the end of the Inquisition, in 1815, Goya was brought to trail accused of painting obscene naked women, but the results are unknown.

To bring the discussion of Goya up to date, in 1991, a reproduction of Goya’s “Nude Maja” was taken down from a classroom wall at Penn Sate following a complaint form a woman professor that it was a form of sexual harassment. The painting had hung in the music room on campus for more than a decade. The president of the Student government Association called it “ludicrous censorship,” but the Liaison Committee of the Penn State Commission for Women said the female faculty “found it difficult to appear professional when forced to lecture to a class with a picture of a female nude on the wall behind them.” Four other paintings were taken down to avoid a debate over what should and should not be displayed, proving that censorship of Goya is still alive.

David Wojnarowicz is recognized as one of the most potent voices of his generation, and his artistic achievements place him firmly within a long-standing American tradition of the artist as visionary, rebel and public figure. David Wojnarowicz’s work emerged directly from his life. He knew little art history, had no artistic training in high school and he made a paint of not trolling the galleries to see what everyone else was doing. Exposed to unusual hardship as a boy, as a sexually active teen, and as a street person, he did not see his experiences reflected in the popular culture of the members of the dominant white, male, heterosexual, Christian, middle to upper class. Wojnarowicz's intention is explicitly ideological: his aim is to affect the world at large; he attempts to create imaginary weapons to resist established powers. Wojnarowicz creates provocative narratives and historical allegories dealing with themes of order and disorder, birth and death. using overlapping text, paint, collaged elements, and photography. His source materials include comics, science fiction, news, and mass advertising. Wojnarowicz developed a vocabulary of symbols that took on meaning through careful combinations that played off one another ironically and metaphorically. For example, symbols of the American dream are used as searing comments about American capitalism and violence, and advertisements are transformed into visions of horror, as in his supermarket ad series.

Present in his art is a fusion of eroticism and death, a powerful indication of the rage he felt at how much more attention society gave to killing men rather than loving them. His works suggest many layers of meaning, with implications of the loss of belief in myth, religion and history. People who do not look deeper into his collages can not understand his complex expression of “real-world issues (339).” Instead they take a symbol out of context and get a unclear understanding of the artworks “rendering them indistinguishable from pornography(345).” By labeling his art pornographic, it becomes a target for censorship.

Because Wojnarowicz’s artworks give a supporting voice to the members of minorities, it is no shock that his art strikes fears in individuals that believe they are the “moral center” of society. His art is censored because of the individual’s fear of taboo subjects that are not in the mainstream: issues of homophobia and discrimination against people with AIDS. The “official” censorship of his art came in charges by censorship committees against the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) accusing them of spending “hard-earned tax dollars” to fund Wojnarowicz’s “pornographic and blasphemous art” (335). This pressure on the NEA caused them to drop funding for Wojnarowicz’s exhibits, affecting his ability to use his artist expression by limited its exposure to the public.

Robert Mapplethorpe is also a contemporary American artist who used his artwork to “push sexual frontiers” by using his life as an active member of the gay community in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, to inspire his works (366). His art reflected his life as a gay minority before the concept of an AIDS crisis. He challenged people to think about taboo issues of race and sex through photographs of “nudes, still lives, and celebrity portraits” (367). His more well known works are “The Perfect Moment” catalogue and his “X, Y, and Z portfolios” portraying sadomasochistic homosexual behavior and the sexuality of black men. Mapplethorpe’s photograph of black and white men shocked, enraged, or stimulated different elements in the viewing audience. Twenty years after he photographed some of his initial homosexual friends, many viewers may fail to recognize how Mapplethorpe was pushing the boundaries of sexual behavior in his time. His photography shows his exploration of sexuality was perverse in the extreme. He enjoyed dehumanizing the human. He continuously experimented always accepting anything in his social life, then capturing many issues of his life on film. His photography documents a wide range of pleasure and pain for public review and consideration.

As Mapplethorpe grew in prominence through the early 80s, so did the public controversy surrounding the rise of homosexual advocacy. The debates raging about Mapplethorpe often reflect an undertone of these homosexual arguments. His works are very controversial because they serve as a spring board for cultural debates. An objective examination of many of Mapplethorpe's photographs suggests a love of the beauty of bodies, devoid of any political or cultural agenda.

When elite intellectuals use their position to convince their peers that by not allowing public view of such controversial materials they protect the Christian morals of the society, then censorship occurs. One such critic was Jesse Helms, who used photographs from “The Perfect Moment” to support his amendment that “barred the use of federal funds to promote, disseminate, or produce obscene or indecent materials” (373). Helm’s did not represent Mapplethorpe’s art to the conference committee as art with a deeper meaning behind the controversial images, but presented the amendment as a strictly pornographic issue. He made the issue seem to be a vote against or supporting pornographic materials supported by tax money, and of course the committee voted to pass the amendment. The result of the committee was the “Miller test” that labeled art as obscene when “the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” (378). But according to whose values? If the jury’s values differ from that of the artist, who defiantly considers his work serious, the artist expression is limited.

Another example was the criticism made by Dr. Judith Reisman who disagreed that Mapplethorpe’s photographs were art because they “failed to express human emotion” because of the sexual images(379). But this statement also requires the question, by whose values? Maybe they do not show human emotion to her because she believes only traditional “beautiful” things can invoke emotion, but they may invoke emotions in other viewers, which is the artist purpose.

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In the late 1980s, state prosecutors brought a criminal obscenity charge against the owner of a record store for selling an album by the rap group, 2 Live Crew. Although this was the first time that obscenity charges had ever been brought against song lyrics, the 2 Live Crew case focused the nation's attention on an old question: should the government ever have the authority to dictate to its citizens what they may or may not listen to, read, or watch?

American society has always been deeply ambivalent about this question. On the one hand, our history is filled with examples of overt government censorship, from the 1873 Comstock Law to the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Anthony Comstock, head of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, boasted 194,000 "questionable pictures" and 134,000 pounds of books of "improper character" were destroyed under the Comstock Law -- in the first year alone. The Communications Decency Act imposed an unconstitutional censorship scheme on the Internet, accurately described by a federal judge as "the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed."

On the other hand, the commitment to freedom of imagination and expression is deeply embedded in our national psyche, buttressed by the First Amendment, and supported by a long line of Supreme Court decisions.

Provocative and controversial art and in-your-face entertainment put our commitment to free speech to the test. Why should we oppose censorship when scenes of murder and mayhem dominate the TV screen, when works of art can be seen as a direct insult to peoples' religious beliefs, and when much sexually explicit material can be seen as degrading to women? Why not let the majority's morality and taste dictate what others can look at or listen to?

The answer is simple, and timeless: a free society is based on the principle that each and every individual has the right to decide what art or entertainment he or she wants -- or does not want -- to receive or create. Once you allow the government to censor someone else, you cede to it the the power to censor you, or something you like. Censorship is like poison gas: a powerful weapon that can harm you when the wind shifts.

Freedom of expression for ourselves requires freedom of expression for others. It is at the very heart of our democracy.


Sex in art and entertainment is the most frequent target of censorship crusades. Many examples come to mind. A painting of the classical statue of Venus de Milo was removed from a store because the managers of the shopping mall found its semi-nudity "too shocking." Hundreds of works of literature, from Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, have been banned from public schools based on their sexual content.

A museum director was charged with a crime for including sexually explicit photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe in an art exhibit.

American law is, on the whole, the most speech-protective in the world -- but sexual expression is treated as a second-class citizen. No causal link between exposure to sexually explicit material and anti-social or violent behavior has ever been scientifically established, in spite of many efforts to do so. Rather, the Supreme Court has allowed censorship of sexual speech on moral grounds -- a remnant of our nation's Puritan heritage.

This does not mean that all sexual expression can be censored, however. Only a narrow range of "obscene" material can be suppressed; a term like "pornography" has no legal meaning . Nevertheless, even the relatively narrow obscenity exception serves as a vehicle for abuse by government authorities as well as pressure groups who want to impose their personal moral views on other people.


Today's calls for censorship are not motivated solely by morality and taste, but also by the widespread belief that exposure to images of violence causes people to act in destructive ways. Pro-censorship forces, including many politicians, often cite a multitude of "scientific studies" that allegedly prove fictional violence leads to real-life violence.

There is, in fact, virtually no evidence that fictional violence causes otherwise stable people to become violent. And if we suppressed material based on the actions of unstable people, no work of fiction or art would be safe from censorship. Serial killer Theodore Bundy collected cheerleading magazines. And the work most often cited by psychopaths as justification for their acts of violence is the Bible.

But what about the rest of us? Does exposure to media violence actually lead to criminal or anti-social conduct by otherwise stable people, including children, who spend an average of 28 hours watching television each week? These are important questions. If there really were a clear cause-and-effect relationship between what normal children see on TV and harmful actions, then limits on such expression might arguably be warranted.


Studies on the relationship between media violence and real violence are the subject of considerable debate. Children have been shown TV programs with violent episodes in a laboratory setting and then tested for "aggressive" behavior. Some of these studies suggest that watching TV violence may temporarily induce "object aggression" in some children (such as popping balloons or hitting dolls or playing sports more aggressively) but not actual criminal violence against another person.

CORRELATIONAL STUDIES that seek to explain why some aggressive people have a history of watching a lot of violent TV suffer from the chicken-and-egg dilemma: does violent TV cause such people to behave aggressively, or do aggressive people simply prefer more violent entertainment? There is no definitive answer. But all scientists agree that statistical correlations between two phenomena do not mean that one causes the other.

INTERNATIONAL COMPARISONS are no more helpful. Japanese TV and movies are famous for their extreme, graphic violence, but Japan has a very low crime rate -- much lower than many societies in which television watching is relatively rare. What the sudies reveal on the issue of fictional violence and real world aggression is -- not much.

The only clear assertion that can be made is that the relationship between art and human behavior is a very complex one. Violent and sexually explicit art and entertainment have been a staple of human cultures from time immemorial. Many human behavioralists believe that these themes have a useful and constructive societal role, serving as a vicarious outlet for individual aggression.


The Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment's protection of artistic expression very broadly. It extends not only to books, theatrical works and paintings, but also to posters, television, music videos and comic books -- whatever the human creative impulse produces. 

Two fundamental principles come into play whenever a court must decide a case involving freedom of expression. The first is "content neutrality"-- the government cannot limit expression just because any listener, or even the majority of a community, is offended by its content. In the context of art and entertainment, this means tolerating some works that we might find offensive, insulting, outrageous -- or just plain bad. 

The second principle is that expression may be restricted only if it will clearly cause direct and imminent harm to an important societal interest. The classic example is falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater and causing a stampede. Even then, the speech may be silenced or punished only if there is no other way to avert the harm.


Whatever influence fictional violence has on behavior, most expert believe its effects are marginal compared to other factors. Even small children know the difference between fiction and reality, and their attitudes and behavior are shaped more by their life circumstances than by the books they read or the TV they watch. In 1972, the U.S. Surgeon General's Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior released a 200-page report, "Television and Growing Up: The Impact of Televised Violence," which concluded, "The effect [of television] is small compared with many other possible causes, such as parental attitudes or knowledge of and experience with the real violence of our society." Twenty-one years later, the American Psychological Association published its 1993 report, "Violence & Youth," and concluded, "The greatest predictor of future violent behavior is a previous history of violence." In 1995, the Center for Communication Policy at UCLA, which monitors TV violence, came to a similar conclusion in its yearly report: "It is known that television does not have a simple, direct stimulus-response effect on its audiences."

Blaming the media does not get us very far, and, to the extent that diverts the public's attention from the real causes of violence in society, it may do more harm than good.


A pro-censorship member of Congress once attacked the following shows for being too violent: The Miracle Worker, Civil War Journal, Star Trek 9, The Untouchables, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. What would be left if all these kinds of programs were purged from the airwaves? Is there good violence and bad violence? If so, who decides? Sports and the news are at least as violent as fiction, from the fights that erupt during every televised hockey game, to the videotaped beating of Rodney King by the LA Police Department, shown over and over gain on prime time TV. If we accept censorship of violence in the media, we will have to censor sports and news programs.


The First Amendment is based upon the belief that in a free and democratic society, individual adults must be free to decide for themselves what to read, write, paint, draw, see and hear. If we are disturbed by images of violence or sex, we can change the channel, turn off the TV, and decline to go to certain movies or museum exhibits.

We can also exercise our own free speech rights by voicing our objections to forms of expression that we don't like. Justice Louis Brandeis' advice that the remedy for messages we disagree with or dislike in art, entertainment or politics is "more speech, not enforced silence," is as true today as it was when given in 1927.

Further, we can exercise our prerogative as parents without resorting to censorship. Devices now exist that make it possible to block access to specific TV programs and internet sites. Periodicals that review books, recordings, and films can help parents determine what they feel is appropriate for their youngsters. Viewing decisions can, and should, be made at home, without government interference.


Justice John Marshall Harlan's line, "one man's vulgarity is another's lyric," sums up the impossibility of developing a definition of obscenity that isn't hopelessly vague and subjective. And Justice Potter Stewart's famous assurance, "I know it when I see it," is of small comfort to artists, writers, movie directors and lyricists who must navigate the murky waters of obscenity law trying to figure out what police, prosecutors, judges and juries will think.

The Supreme Court's current definition of constitutionally unprotected Obscenity, first announced in a 1973 case called Miller v. California, has three requirements. The work must 1) appeal to the average person's prurient (shameful, morbid) interest in sex; 2) depict sexual conduct in a "patently offensive way" as defined by community standards; and 3) taken as a whole, lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

The Supreme Court has held that Indecent expression -- in contrast with "obscenity" -- is entitled to some constitutional protection, but that indecency in some media (broadcasting, cable, and telephone) may be regulated. In its 1978 decision in Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica, the Court ruled that the government could require radio and television stations to air "indecent" material only during those hours when children would be unlikely listeners or viewers. Broadcast indecency was defined as: "language that describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory activities or organs." This vague concept continues to baffle both the public and the courts.

PORNOGRAPHY is not a legal term at all. Its dictionary definition is "writing or pictures intended to arouse sexual desire." Pornography comes in as many varieties as the human sexual impulse and is protected by the First Amendment unless it meets the definition for illegal obscenity.


Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are "offensive," happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups. Censorship by the government is unconstitutional.

In contrast, when private individuals or groups organize boycotts against stores that sell magazines of which they disapprove, their actions are protected by the First Amendment, although they can become dangerous in the extreme. Private pressure groups, not the government, promulgated and enforced the infamous Hollywood blacklists during the McCarthy period. But these private censorship campaigns are best countered by groups and individuals speaking out and organizing in defense of the threatened expression.

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