Free Speech and Property Rights: Censorship in the Arts

The essay below, Free Speech and Property Rights: Censorship in the Arts, was written by artist and educator Charles Gaines, in response to the recent events concerning artistic speech at the National Portrait Gallery, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and the Gagosian Gallery in New York City. In this essay, Gaines explains how artists, art media sources, and art institutions should combat the silencing of artistic expression through means other than law. The reader will notice that we have included the short version on the front page of this website, and the longer version below.

Gaines has graciously agreed to publish his essay with, with the hope of using his essay as a petition statement from artists, writers and art viewers to be sent to museums and galleries. In this light, we hope you will sign-on to this petition. You may access the petition form and list here.


Free Speech and Property Rights: Censorship in the Arts (short version)

-Charles Gaines, January 2011

  • Freedom of speech: an idea that government cannot censor or punish you because of your expressed opinion. The problem today is that it is not only government but also institutions such as corporations, museums, and galleries that are involved in censoring speech.

  • When the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian removed David Wojnarowicz’s work from its show Hide and Seek, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles painted out Blu’s anti-war mural, artists and others who have an interest in free speech protested.  But in this protest we find two separate interests: one, art as a humanistic discipline, that when coupled with freedom of speech gives us the capacity to realize our full potential as human beings, and two, our interest in protecting property, which points to questions concerning the ownership of works of art.  We understand that as artists we speak through the objects we produce and we believe we own that speech even if someone else owns the object.

  • Artists and institutions are increasingly using law as a weapon to protect free speech.  But they are beginning to realize that this action is actually contributing to the demise of art.  As in the Mass MoCA v. Buchel case, these aggressive legal maneuvers and lawsuits are affirming more and more that art has to be considered property in matters of free speech, and this moves the idea of art away from philosophical or moral principles into one of property rights.This brings the realization that the law cannot resolve this alone.

  • The alternative solution is to fight these patterns of censorship through political organizing.  We will follow the example of the civil rights movement and come together to make our arguments to museums such as the Smithsonian and MOCA, and galleries such as Gagosian on moral and ethical grounds and not rely only on law. In this way we can fight for principles we deem important even if not protected by law..

  • We understand the deeply troubling problems the recent events around free speech and censorship have raised.  We ask that our institutions of art demonstrate their understanding of this and rethink their relationship to art and artists, and to consider the damage censorship and the silencing of speech does.

  • We understand that the law negotiates the idea of art in terms of property rights, and if we only use the law as a tool to fight censorship or protect property rights, we will only intensify the present trend of art as commodity.  This undermines what is important about art: that it expands our knowledge, deepens our understanding, and enriches our experiences.  Art has a long history of contributing to our social, cultural, and political lives and this history should not be negated by actions that oppress the free exploration of ideas. We will use negotiation as the means to influence institutional practices around censorship in order to preserve these things that make art important to society. We ask our institutions to do the same, to look beyond their legal rights as autonomous agencies and help us protect the idea of art.

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