by Mark W. Scala, Chief Curator, Frist Center for the Visual Arts
Should the arts be directed, encouraged, and even coerced toward building a good and just society? In his book Censorship Now!! (Akashic Books, 2015), musician and polemicist Ian F. Svenonius argues, under the auspices of something called the Committee for Ending Freedom, that the climate of unfettered expression has enabled a free-for-all in which works of art—good and bad, fatuous and relevant—are equalized by the sense that everything is permissible and no art is more effective than any other as a force for positive change. He considers “artistic freedom” to be a deceptive instrument of capitalism, propagated by those holding power to diffuse the activist potential of the arts by giving artists license to say anything, but with no real consequences if they try to undermine the status quo. He asks, “If art can ‘change the world’—which of course it can and does—isn’t the ‘freedom of expression’ doctrine really just a way to demote it to a theoretical gulag of absolute impotence and irrelevance?”
Svenonius notes that political dictators have always affirmed art’s potency by seeking to control it. Censorship by totalitarian regimes is “a sign of respect to the role of art and the artist; an acknowledgment that art had resonance, meaning, and power with regard to international consciousness and ideological systems.” Then, perhaps playing the despot’s advocate, he pronounces art to be “a dangerous substance that must be regulated at all costs.”
So, should one take Svenonius’s call for censorship at face value? Is he aligning himself with Robespierre, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Kim Jong-un, ISIS, and all those other purveyors of terror for whom art was and is weaponized? Not really. He calls for the state to be censored as well; by whom, he doesn’t say—perhaps a cadre of right-thinking artists, critics, and academics, as enforcers of a new Cultural Revolution. In a chilling parody/echo of that particular horror, he writes, “Censorship, termination, eradication, and liquidation! Censorship until reeducation!” He ignores that you cannot censor power without actually having power. Who would endow our cultural commissars with such authority but a greater power that, by hierarchical definition, could not itself be censored?
That Svenonius has not presented his ideas about how censorship would actually work is perhaps beside the point. He may simply mean to shock artists into committing to social purpose, to insist on more critical thinking and “industry-wide” checks and balances to weed out the art that doesn’t really change people’s lives in a positive way—to get artists to think of their work as a mission and a tool, with risk and impact beyond the art world. But then he further confounds the argument, going from censorship as a means of steering art in a socially beneficial direction to censorship as a force of darkness that serves to catalyze artists toward purposeful subversion. “For art to regain any sense of its place in the world, it must live under the shadow of the cudgel and the blackout.”
This equation suggests that Salman Rushdie needed to go underground for us to feel that his writing is important. If the Russian authorities had ignored Pussy Riot, if China had not jailed Ai Weiwei, these artists might not have the moral potency we now ascribe to them. It is a compelling thesis. While censorship doesn’t change the content of an artwork, it can turn that work into an alluring symbol for broad values that we hope are humanistic. Censorship can intensify art’s capacity to effectively critique repressive regimes by forcing it underground, where it is hard to ferret out, like the dissident samizdat literature that circulated quietly during the Soviet era.
But this raises thorny questions. Unless they purposely court censorship in hopes it will make their subversive content more alluring to the disaffected, would artists who might wish to push boundaries of acceptable expression censor themselves to avoid the possibility that their works will be redacted, rather than be read and seen, or worse, that they might be fined or imprisoned? Does censorship imbue significance on expressions that by most measures are of no redeeming value, which would otherwise be dismissed or ignored? (Remember the First Amendment rights of pornographers: If they are censored, they are still only pornographers and not cultural heroes.)
Can censorship ever be good for society? Think of the limits placed on expressions that go against widely held social mores, like the Confederate monuments being removed in New Orleans. In truth, institutions such as museums, concert halls, radio stations, and theaters exercise control over cultural presentations as a matter of course, typically choosing not to expose their audiences to works that promote hate, racism, and other forces that we know to be detrimental to individuals and society. Is this censorship, or is it good social judgment?
Despite its perverse dance with totalitarianism, Censorship Now!! does contain insights about art’s diminished agency. For me, the book brought back memories of the NEA’s campaign during the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, in which the phrase “Fear no art” was emblazoned across the t-shirts and bumper stickers of well- meaning art lovers. I didn’t have the nerve then to be an apostate, but I wanted to say that if art isn’t to be feared, it probably also doesn’t have any real power to make change. Rightly or wrongly, it is often change that people fear (remember that both Barack Obama and Donald Trump are considered by their respective supporters to be “change agents”). Yet change as inspired by art comes in many forms: some political, but most in terms of opening a new way of seeing that is internal, ephemeral, and difficult to quantify. Even if art does contain ideas that frighten people, an ideologically based regulation of art and thought-policing in general debases our most certain means of inspiring actual transformation.
Svenonius’s book can be ordered online (akashicbooks.com), and it was also available in the gift shop of the Whitney Museum during the 2017 Biennial. In that exhibition was a series of paintings by Los Angeles artist Frances Stark that depicted pages of Censorship Now!!’s first chapter, with particularly virulent sentences underlined. In an adjacent gallery was Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, which some activists have sought to remove or destroy out of indignation at its presumed exploitation of black suffering. It is possible that Stark’s paintings actually galvanized these protests and triggered a broad public conversation about artistic responsibility, freedom, and the rights of the aggrieved to suppress art (and thought) that does not meet their vision of a just society. Ironically, this juxtaposition reminds us that as a crucible for larger societal issues, art may not be as inconsequential as Svenonius supposes.