Censorship in Art,  Is Taste also Censorship?

I may not know art, but I know what I like. We’ve all heard this statement before and we tend to pass it off as harmless naiveté. But this statement is also, it may be argued, at the root of most issues where ‘censorship’ becomes the battle cry. This begs the question – is censorship actually the codification of society’s taste?

When “Le D'jeuner sur l'Herbe” was exhibited by Edouard Manet at the Paris Salon des Refuses in 1863 it caused an uproar and was condemned by the critics. The now famous painting depicts a nude woman in the company of two fully clothed contemporarily dressed men having a picnic in the woods. The negative reaction was due more to the French’s conservative nature than to any moral or aesthetic sensibilities. It was perfectly acceptable at the time to show nudes in a classical setting but not in a contemporary one.

Recent happenings in the arts scene, both nationally and locally, have added fuel to the fire of censorship. Internationally recognized artist Eric Fischl was commissioned to produce a bronze as a memorial to those who jumped or fell to their death from the World Trade Center. After being placed on view the week of September 9th, 2002 in the lower concourse at Rockefeller Center, “Tumbling Woman”, a bronze depicting a naked woman in free-fall, was removed after complaints from some passers-by that the piece was too disturbing and distasteful.

Were the French of 1863 or the Americans of 2002 trying to censor these artists and their work or were they merely conveying the dominant taste of the time? There are arguments both ways and therein lies the rub. One school of thought is that if the government or the powers that be use the rule of law to squelch the artist, it’s censorship. When the people, whether en mass or individually, voice opposition to the artist, it’s an issue of taste. Those fearful of losing freedom of expression see these voiced complaints as having the potential to force legislative censorship. The government and its laws can literally prevent the censored expression, while the people can only complain that the expression should be censored. It’s one thing for a museum under pressure from their supporters to say ‘we can’t show your work’ and another for someone to say ‘you can’t create your work’. (I won’t get into the issue of the weakness of the museum in this example).

In the case of Fischl’s piece, the people with the power over the sculpture bent to the will of their constituents and they did this because they wanted to keep the people happy and in doing so keep their jobs. And quite frankly, from the viewpoint of politics, that’s the way it works. The artist and his believers must give way to the power (the owner of the property and the financial supporters) or go elsewhere and that’s that. If Fischl and his believers had their own building and courtyard they could put ‘Tumbling Woman’ on a pedestal and the public be damned. Living in this country allows for that.

Using taste as a guide to determine content has not changed that much over time. In the sixth century, medieval composers of religious music believed that using certain musical structures was too secular and vulgar and often made reference to the Devil. As recently as 1985 an influential group of Washington wives formed the Parents Music Resource Center to campaign against “smut” in rock music. Concerned with lyrical references to masturbation, bondage, rape, sodomy, and incest, they feared that virgin minds were being poisoned. And most recently, videos and movies were being attacked for influencing the likes of Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

There are still taboos when it comes to art in modern times. Whether it’s photos of black and white men embracing, incorporating camel dung on a painting of the Virgin Mary, or statues commemorating the World Trade Center jumpers, the question of taste or the lack of it is going to irritate some nerves. Let’s hope this form of ‘censorship’ remains with the individual and does not find its way into the rule of law. Keeping in mind that one of our government’s responsibilities is to protect us from what may harm us, not what may offend us, it’s nice to hear someone say ‘I may not like what he’s saying, but I’ll defend to the death his right to say it.’

Jerry De La Cruz & M. Gordon Brown
First published in Eye Level Magazine, Denver, CO
Winter, 2003 Issue, Page 2