A filthy swamp in which no fresh water flows in and none flows out. The air is thick and sluggish, too, and the muddy banks emit a stench of century-old decay. The empty bottles, rotten plastic bags, and the forgotten cries of birds and wildlife… In the stifling heat of summer, swarms of flies infest over the stagnant muddy-green water, buzzing the name of hell a hundred times. —
Censorship seems abundant in this day and age: censorship on the Internet, the case of Edward Snowdon, against radically opinionated institutions, Charlie Hebdo, extreme right-wing political parties, the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, the list goes on. Origins of this phenomenon can be traced back to as early as around 399BC, when Socrates was sentenced to drinking a cup of hemlock for corrupting the minds of his students. During the World Wars, the army from both sides employed a strict military censorship that prevented negative remarks about the war to be sent back home. Elvis only made appearance on TV in the 50s down to his torso, as his pelvic thrusting movement deemed vulgar and sexually inappropriate to many.
The world of art, especially, as it appropriates tools to push boundaries of social conventions, challenging pre-existing attitudes and values, is, and has been, deeply scarred by the repressive effects of censorship. The most common ‘justifications’ for censorship include sexually explicit materials, offensive language, racism, homosexuality as well as unacceptable worldviews. With such a powerful and transgressive stance, it frequently collides with oppositions in a fight for the freedom of expression, to dare to utter the taboo, the voices of the minority.
You see, censorship is threatening as a weapon used by fascists, by extremists, to assert control over the state, but I would argue that this caution should be made more universal. The perturbing difficulty is that a ‘functioning censorship’ requires individuals to surrender their freedom of expression to an institution, who ultimately then has the authority to superimpose their values on others by stifling ideas, nodding their head in approval or otherwise shaking their head and issuing sanctions.
The birth of a piece of art can be divided into roughly three stages: the initial idea, the presenting of the idea, and the reception from the audience. Censorship cuts the cord after the initial stage. By preventing the dissemination of ideas, we are effectively removing the rights of the audience to respond, whether in accordance or otherwise. Indeed, ideas can at times be abhorrently filthy, inciting malice and discrimination towards individuals with verbal venom. But this is why the artistic process is such a marvellous system. We can freely challenge and rethink concepts through communication. We do not all have to agree and take the same stance, in fact, it is virtually impossible to do so for we are all individuals with different point of views. But disagreement is not a justification for silencing the opposition. The balance is always maintained by the reaction from the mass audience. This, I believe, is where the artistic form differs from even the most vigorous polemics.
A glance through a decent book on the history of art and one would come across a worrying amount of artworks or pieces of literature that have been silenced or drastically altered, at best without the author of which being sent on exile or imprisoned. Censorship is at best preposterous: a contemporary childhood favourite, the Harry Potter books by author J. R. Rowling, were challenged by a district school board for its depiction of ‘witchcraft’ and its backing for disobedience and disrespect towards authorities. Pupils were made to have a signed permission slip from their parents or guardians in order for them to take out the books from the school library’s ‘restricted section.’ Fortunately, the measures were overturned by the federal district court, as it violated the pupils’ First Amendment right to read and obtain information simply because they disagreed with the school board’s values.
Last month, the Tate Modern gallery held an event with the hashtag #yotambiénexijo in solidarity with the Cuban artist, Tania Bruguera, who has been detained in the country for daring to present his work in Havana’s Revolutionary Plaza. Ironically, her artistic performance fought for the freedom of expression. The curator, Catherine Wood, argued that “artistic expression is a space to challenge meanings. A society with freedom of artistic expression is a healthier society.” The event also brought to attention the tragic case of Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist, who was suddenly detained for reasons still not made explicit. The event also featured a nurse in an intensive-care unit who work with patients who have a tube down their throat that helps them to breath but stops them from speaking. “I am reminded that a voice is a gift.”
The nature of art has been changed drastically by censorship. Artists resort to finding new modes of expression that protect them from tyrannical outrage. Allegory and metaphors are the most common and effective means to shield them from the direct line of fire. This is perhaps where art has the means to resist outrage and death threats in comparison to other forms of expression. Art celebrates subjectivity, intangibility, along with a sense of the abstract. From the artistic good taste, the argument made, the idea presented, all of these are never black and white. Their fluidity in meaning gives rise to discussion that challenges existing prevailing ideas. How can one legitimately censor this without boiling the artwork down to a single idea? This is the point: art resists such underdeveloped simplification.
Should we view art has time capsules that record the reactions to events in our history, then censorship is a way of rewriting our identity. The tampering of the individual’s right to document their experience and reaction to real events seems nonsensical. Literature and art have the power to change minds and behave more convincingly than the most forceful political polemic, and we would do well not to hinder such a powerful means of overthrowing warped authorities.
Censorship claims to represent the demographics of a society, and to act in their best interest. This fundamentally challenges the founding rights of human beings. One can see where the problem lies in a world where very few things are black and white, and one in which all humans have the potential to become corrupt or lose sense of what is right and what is wrong. Let’s not descend into anarchy, into a world where ‘some animals are more equal than others.’ Freedom of artistic expression is a prerequisite to humanity, so let’s keep it that way.