Saturday, April 20, 2024

Times Have Changed: On Censorship

I was just reading Marie Darrieussecq‘s Dispatch (sorry, no link) in the recent Art Review Journal–concerning the “censorship” of Larry Clark’s recent exhibition in Paris–and it reminded me of the recent skirmishes in the U.S. with restrictions on the exhibition and experiencing of artworks. There is of course the recent National Portrait Gallery fiasco over their removal of David Wojnarowicz’s video; Jeffrey Deitch’s change of mind and paint-over at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA); and Ingrid Homberg’s violent ousting from the Gagosian Gallery, NY.

Darrieussecq asks: “Has the precautionary principle been taken too far?” Good question. But I like her ending thought better: “There’s a big difference between purposely choosing to visit an exhibition and being forced to see teenage bodies (particularly girls’) in advertising everywhere.”

The difference of course rests on agency: something we have pretty much forgotten about in both art and legislation. This is where law comes in. Not only should we ask why we depend so much on law, but better yet, why are artists so intent on speaking out against “censorship” in a random and arbitrary manner? Why not take another form of action against so-called “censorship”?

Why the over-blown hype concerning Wojnarowicz’s video but hardly a peep over Deitch’s destruction of Blu’s mural or the ousting of Homberg from a commercial Chelsea gallery? Perhaps it has to do with monetary and cultural capital. Who in Los Angeles would dare oppose Sir Deitch’s dictum? Or perhaps it has to do with the fact that it’s much easier to voice your opinion at a tired and true old enemy: conservatives and Republicans alike. Would it have made a difference if Deitch and Gagosian were die-hard Republican donors? I think so. If speech is speech, then it’s speech. And as far as I’m concerned the US Supreme Court has made it quite clear that protected speech–including art–deserves full First Amendment protection, regardless of the content and speaker. Of course, if what we’re arguing about are the few non-protected speech categories (obscenity, child pornography, fighting words, false advertisement, etc.), then I do believe that the battle terrain is quite clear. What is not evident–ironically–is the question of who’s going to fight the battle to liberate non-protected speech and garnish it with full First Amendment protection?

Furthermore, what has made art institutions so preoccupied with and fearful of dissent and inflammatory speech? Is it, as the Gagosian Gallery attendant proclaimed, about property and commerce: “This is private property…We’re here to sell art.” Certainly the National Portrait Gallery and Paris’ Musée d Art Moderne are not in the business of selling art. But they are in the business of securing the securing of public funds. At some point the public (ie- legislators) must act in its own best interest and not in that of a single individual or constituency. Hell, they are tax dollars after all.This brings to mind Justice Scalia’s scathing dictum from the NEA v. Finley case: “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” In other words, there may be a fundamental constitutional right to speech, but not a fundamental constitutional right to fund speech.


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