The United States Has a Long and Dishonorable Record of Artistic Censorship
After Islamists in Paris, enraged over satirical drawings depicting the Prophet Muhammad, murdered 17 people – including eight journalists from the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, millions of Europeans and Americans proclaimed their dedication to free expression. Massive demonstrations, lofty political rhetoric and uplifting editorials about free speech expressed our deepest ideals. But, as Bill Blum disconcertingly noted in his Truthdig essay, the freedom of speech has never come easily in the United States or elsewhere in the world. Blum pointedly cited several egregious examples from American history in which First Amendment protections have gone largely ignored: the busting of unions, the silencing of prisoners, the prosecution of whistleblowers and the practice of spying on millions of innocent citizens by the National Security Agency.
Some of the worst First Amendment violations have been in the arts. Artists in every medium have encountered problems with authorities inside and outside over the content of their creative expressions. Despite its tradition of, and strong rhetorical commitment to, liberty, the United States also has a long and dishonorable record of artistic censorship.
In France, the record is also far from ideal. As far back as 1832, the great French artist and caricaturist Honoré Daumier was brought to trial and sentenced to six months in prison for his scatological cartoon “Gargantua.” The work, which was censored by French authorities before it was to appear in the Paris weekly La Caricature, lampooned the reactionary King Louis Philippe, depicting him seated on a throne (that was also a commode). In the cartoon, the king was shown swallowing bags of gold and excreting official documents bestowing government and military promotions on members of the elite. The message at the time was clear: Louis Philippe was a voracious monarch, indifferent to his impoverished subjects, and willing to accept bribes in exchange for privileges from anyone who could pay. No outraged cries of “Je Suis La Caricature” were heard on the streets of Paris at the time, and many more examples of artistic censorship in France have followed between then and now.
In the United States, literary works, films, theatrical productions, musical performances, recordings and visual artworks have regularly faced real and threatened censorship. Like the satirical cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, visual artists have been regularly targeted for suppression, usually for offending conventional political, religious or sexual orthodoxies. For the past century, painters, muralists, photographers, sculptors, performance artists and political cartoonists have felt the wrath of government officials, private property owners and publishers because of their dissenting and provocative expressions. Their creative efforts have offended people in power, sometimes more so than the satirical images in Charlie Hebdo, whose works horrified some segments of the Islamic community in France and elsewhere.
A brief account of some lowlights of American artistic censorship reveals the dramatic chasm between free expression ideals and the grimmer realities of actual practice. During World War I, for example, the U.S. government suppressed the radical magazine The Masses by indicting the magazine’s editors for opposing American participation in the war as imperialistic and for denouncing conscription and supporting conscientious objection. Washington also denied the publication second-class postal privileges. Among its contributors were several prominent visual artists, including John Sloan, George Bellows, Art Young and Boardman Robinson, whose trenchant cartoons could no longer reach their intended audiences.
During the Depression, censorship was usually directed against artists whose content reflected strong political opposition to capitalist excess, especially those who conspicuously identified as socialists or communists during that era. The most publicized case involved Diego Rivera’s mural at Rockefeller Center in New York, which the Rockefeller family ordered destroyed because of Rivera’s inclusion of an image of the Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin. Because a private entity rather than the government carried out the destruction, no First Amendment issue was raised, but it was egregious censorship nevertheless.
In San Francisco, the artists Victor Arnautoff, Bernard Zackheim, John Howard and Clifford Wight were accused of communist associations and propaganda, and their murals at Coit Tower were hidden from public view for many decades. In Washington, D.C., under government pressure, the Corcoran Gallery allowed Paul Cadmus’s painting “The Fleet’s In,” depicting sailors cavorting with prostitutes, to be removed. Authorities obviously preferred a romanticized view of sailors instead of Cadmus’s more satirical (and realistic) depiction.
World War II generated its own forms of artistic censorship. In 1942, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, forcing Americans of Japanese descent from California, Oregon and Washington into domestic concentration camps. Most of the prisoners were American citizens who had committed no crimes and had no record of disloyalty, yet they had no recourse to the constitutional guarantees of due process or equal protection.
At the time, the U.S. government employed photographers to document the “relocation.” One was Dorothea Lange, a key figure in the history of documentary photography. Many of her images were highly critical of the internment and were suppressed by the government for the duration of the war. The term the government used was “impounded,” a euphemism for censorship. The authorities were clearly reluctant for the general public to see images of Japanese-Americans suffering in cramped and uncomfortable quarters in a process now widely viewed as an unconscionable abuse of federal authority.
The Cold War era generated an additional wave of artistic censorship in the United States. Many progressive artists were placed under surveillance and called before congressional investigatory committees. They found their artworks removed from galleries and museums, often at government instigation — an insidious form of censorship and persecution. New Deal murals with images of workers and leftist symbols came under particular attack during the period of McCarthyism in the early and mid-1950s. The entire era saw a fundamental erosion of free expression, which included all aspects of expressive culture that appeared to challenge any aspect of the conservative orthodoxy enveloping the nation.
In more recent times, from the Vietnam War to the present, censorship of the visual arts has continued to be an unnerving feature of cultural life involving works perceived as politically, religiously or sexually offensive. Doubtless, the most famous visual arts censorship controversy of the recent past occurred following the public debates in 1989 over the National Endowment for the Arts’s funding of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and for an exhibition of “Piss Christ,” a photograph by Andres Serrano. Mapplethorpe’s work consisted, among other images, of extremely graphic homoerotic photographs as well as pictures of naked children. The next year, the director of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center was actually arrested for exhibiting Mapplethorpe’s work and charged with obscenity, but a jury found him not guilty.
Nine years later, in 1999, at the “Sensation” exhibition of young British artists at the Brooklyn Museum, one of the most controversial works was Nigerian-born Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary,” which showed a black Virgin Mary surrounded by blaxploitation images as well as close-ups of female genitalia. The most provocative feature of the artwork was its inclusion of elephant dung. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani took great offense to the work in a way comparable to many who have objected to the depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in Charlie Hebdo. He threatened to withdraw funding from the Brooklyn Museum, which responded by filing suit against the mayor-turned-critic. The entire episode, reflecting yet another politically inspired attempt at artistic suppression, generated national and international media coverage.
In 2002, President George W. Bush’s attorney general, John Ashcroft, spent $8,000 in public funds to pay for drapes to cover up the exposed breast of Carl Paul Jennewein’s “The Spirit of Justice,” a large sculpture at the Department of Justice. His censorship of the work evoked laughter and scorn throughout the world.
Even Los Angeles, a city known as an incubator of artistic creativity for well over a century, has scarcely been immune from such censorship.
One example occurred as far back as 1932, when the great Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros painted “America Tropical,” a politically controversial mural featuring an Indian bound to a double cross. The imagery offended conservative tastes at the time and was swiftly whitewashed, rendering the masterpiece unavailable to viewers for 80 years until it was marginally restored in 2012.
Then, in 1966, the LA Board of Supervisors tried to censor the famed sculptor Ed Kienholz’s iconic work “Back Seat Dodge ’38” at the LA County Art Museum. The supervisors found the assemblage, which portrayed a couple having sex in an old car, “revolting,” “pornographic,” “repugnant” and “blasphemous” — a reaction rivaling some of the responses to the “distasteful” images appearing in Charlie Hebdo. A half-century later, “Back Seat Dodge ’38” is back in the museum’s permanent collection, observed by thousands of appreciative viewers.
In 1968, at Long Beach State College, several provocative, sexually suggestive sculptures by a graduate student, William Spater, were censored. Objections about their “vulgar and pornographic content” led university officials to deny Spater a public display of his work. The university leaders, like their counterparts in political office, succumbed to public pressure rather than upholding principles of academic freedom and free expression.
The mid-1990s saw many other art censorship controversies. The artist Noni Olabisi painted a mural celebrating the Black Panther Party in South Los Angeles. The Police Protective League and the City Cultural Affairs Commission objected, claiming the mural would promote violence in the wake of the civil unrest sparked by the 1992 acquittals of police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King. In fact, the two objecting groups were offended by an image of police misconduct, among other mural details. After a protracted battle, Olabisi finally painted her mural, although LA Police Department patrol cars regularly monitored her progress, substituting a form of official intimidation for a failed attempt at censorship.
Nearly two decades later, in 2010, a censorship controversy erupted at the venerable Smithsonian in Washington, when the secretary of the institution removed “Fire in My Belly,” a video by the late David Wojnarowicz, from the National Portrait Gallery exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” Opponents of the video complained that it was “anti-Christian” because it depicted ants crawling on a crucifix. Objectors included the Catholic League and Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who recently spoke about the terrorist attack in Paris by saying, “This vicious terrorist attack is a reminder that we must always be vigilant against the enemies of freedom.”
This small sample of arts censorship reveals the continuing struggle for the full implementation of free expression and the First Amendment. They demonstrate that is vitally important to continue to speak vigorously on behalf of these ideals. But it is even important to ensure that such words actually mean what they say in the United States, a nation that purports to be a beacon of freedom for the rest of the world.Wait, before you go…
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