Art and Censorship

by Kara Gunter

When I was a freshman in college, a professor gave us a hypothetical (which, unfortunately, isn’t always a hypothetical in this part of the country): A local parade is about to be held. The KKK has decided to march. Should they be allowed to?

Being the idealistic 18 and 19 years olds we were, most of us emphatically agreed that, no, they should not be allowed to march. It would just be too offensive. They’re a hate group—why should they have a platform?

Being a racist is abhorrent, but not a crime, our professor told us. Do you value your right to share your opinion, he asked? Of course, we do. Then it’s our job to protect (or at the very least, not trample on) the rights of all people—not just the ones we agree with, or like. He gave us another hypothetical: What if the KKK was unopposed in their request to be a part of the parade, but no one showed up to watch it? What sort of message would that send? Is it more effective even, than engaging in angry, screaming protest? Doesn’t that protest just fuel the Klan’s own angry fire? They would have succeeded in getting us to pay attention to them, which had been their main goal from the beginning.

That’s hard to do, isn’t it? To just walk away from something we disagree with—to walk away from something we find so offensive that we feel it must be punished. We might even feel a bit guilty if we allow something to continue on without raising a voice in protest. But hopefully we can all agree that to protect someone else’s right of expression, is to protect our own.

In 2002, the Columbia Museum of Art was pressured to remove a huge Andres Serrano photograph, Klanswoman (Grand Klaliff II), from a traveling exhibition. The photograph was a massive photo of hooded Klanswoman, just her face (or hood) with one visible eye. Eventually, the museum decided to include the image, after briefly having removed it.

It was a difficult decision that had to be made. I worked at the front desk of the museum at the time, and there were staff-wide meetings—there was anger and there were tears, from both sides of the debate. The weight of the image was recognized by all, and no one took the decision lightly and the eventual decision to keep the exhibition whole, as it was intended to be viewed, was upheld.

There were the occasional Klan members who made it a point, for probably the first time in their lives (and perhaps, the only time), to visit the art museum. Online, you can find interviews with Serrano in which he talks about that particular series of works focusing on the Klan, and being of Honduras and Afro-Cuban descent, it was not his intention to glorify the Klan, and he was actually somewhat taken aback when he was confronted with that interpretation. White supremacists in this area saw the fact this work remained up as a victory for them. That was a misinterpretation of the piece, but the artist can’t always control what the viewer will walk away from a work of art thinking or feeling.

I can only speak for myself, a white woman, but when I first saw the piece I was overwhelmed with this image of hate. I never saw it as glorification, but as a confrontation. This is what lurks within us as a species, and in our history. We should never turn our backs on that—that hate, that history. We should remain vigilant, and stare it right back in the eye, never flinching. That was one reason I was against censoring the image. The second was that as much as I would have hated to protect a work that I thought was an empty message of bigotry and violence, I believe we’ve been charged with the responsibility of doing so.

Art is a subjective thing. I can find a piece life-altering, amazing, beautiful while the bloke next to me leaves muttering under his breath about how his grandchild could have done better (believe me, having worked at the front desk of an art museum, I’ve heard that more times than I can count). But not liking something, or preemptively deciding that others will not like it, or will possibly be offended by it, is not a good enough reason to call for its censoring. And that’s what’s happened recently within our greater arts community when amid concerns that the work was offensive, two pieces by artists Michaela Pilar Brown and Tonya Gregg were removed from an exhibition at the Kershaw County Fine Arts Center.

Body and Soul: An Exhibition featuring the work of Michaela Pilar Brown, Tonya Gregg and Leo Twiggs curated by Wim Roefs, is meant to explore “race, gender, politics, body politics, sexuality, society, consumerism, history and other issues,” according to Kershaw County’s Fine Arts Center website. Just based on that description alone, sensitive viewers should know they may find themselves uncomfortable. Furthermore, surely the arts center was familiar enough with the works of these artists to know some of the work may be difficult, exploring issues in a forthright and unapologetic manner.

In full disclosure, I have not yet seen the entire exhibition, but have seen images of the two censored paintings. Gregg’s piece, Shook, features a small African-American child playing with grenades while a woman looks on in the background. Brown’s work, Cocking Crow, is a nude self-portrait of sorts, featuring the artist’s own body depicted with bird legs. Having not spoken with the artists about these works, I will refrain from telling the reader what I believe the artists’ intentions were, but I can say I find nothing remotely vulgar or crass about either of the paintings. According to the Free Times, Roefs in an effort to reach compromise, placed reproductions of the works in envelopes so the viewer could still (sort of) view the pieces.

I’m not completely unsympathetic to the arts center. I get it. Being an arts organization in Small Town, South Carolina can be difficult. South Carolina has shown itself (at least by our leaders) to not be the friendliest or most supportive place for the arts in the country. Attitudes are generally more conservative than in many other areas outside of this region. Speaking also as an artist who doesn’t paint still-lives, or our beautiful Southern landscape (no derision here– we live in a handsome part of the country, y’all), but instead prefers expressive, conceptual, abstracted works, it can be difficult to find an audience here. Despite that, I feel the best art is challenging art. If you leave insulted or ruffled, ask yourself why. Investigate the feeling. Maybe you’ll learn something about yourself or the world at large. At the very least, you will be experiencing and giving time to someone else’s experience in this world besides your own.

We live in polarizing times. Not many people give up the time or energy in entertaining points-of-view or opinions that don’t jive with their own, these days. It’s been replaced with a fearful conservatism (conservatism, as in the desire to play it safe—not necessarily a political association), that leaves little room for anything other than conformism to a narrow view of what’s acceptable. In that desire, some of us have lost of sight of that responsibility we have to each other, to protect and uphold the right of expression.

One could argue that Serrano, Brown, Gregg, and any other artist who finds themselves in a similar situation, still have the right to produce any kind of art their hearts desire, but that organizations such as the arts center have the right not to show anything they deem offensive. Sure. But this is akin to “free-speech zones” and other such measures that ensure as few people as possible will be exposed to a particular idea. It falls within the realm of legal acceptability, but doesn’t embody the true American spirit. It’s cynical.

The ironic thing is, if the Kershaw County Arts Center had decided to roll with it, addressing any issues with the public if they arose instead of outright censoring the works, given the somewhat tepid response the public has to patronizing the arts and arts organizations in this area, fewer people would likely have been exposed to the pieces. I don’t know if these particular artists enjoy courting controversy, but their artwork has been thrust into the local spotlight, which may not have been a terrible thing.

We’re each capable of deciding for ourselves if we want to view a particular work of art. We can simply not show up to the gallery, we can turn away from a work, we can even protest if we find it so loathsome. But the choice is what matters. If we are not assured the choice, if someone has (with good-intentions, no doubt) made the decision for us—well, I don’t know about you, but that’s a decision I want the freedom to make for myself.

And, we all know what they say about good intentions…

Kara Gunter is the visual arts editor for Jasper Magazine.

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