The Laws of Nature

Friday, January 7, 2011

Self-censorship and Fine Art

In this country, censorship is a controversial act. On the one hand, it’s used to protect society (especially children) from that which is deemed too violent, lewd or indecent. On the other hand, the act of censorship infringes upon our guaranteed individual rights and freedoms. In the world of fine art, censorship is extremely controversial because the artist’s freedom of expression is valued to a certain extent. So, society is more tolerant and even outraged when artists are censored on occasion.

Extrinsically imposed censorship isn’t today’s topic, however. Instead, I want to focus on intrinsically imposed censorship. That is, how and why do we artists choose to censor our own work? Do we adopt the same standards as external censors? How do we censor our work? And, why?

Shock artists specialize in rebelling against imposed standards. In the grand scheme of things, they are few in number but they do push and even blur the boundaries that define fine art. Although it seems ridiculous today, remember the controversy that surrounded John Singer Sargeant’s painting Madame X? A single strap fallen from the shoulder of a married woman was scandalous! He was forced to repaint the strap back up onto the shoulder. Today, no one would give it a second thought. So, the line between what is moral and “decent” and what is not is ever moving. It’s subjective and changes with time. Artists from all disciplines are frequently the catalyst for this change.

So, when we self-censor our work, are we artists guilty of inhibiting the advancement of the arts? Does advancement necessarily occur by challenging the social norms? I often think about this because the status quo is so comfortable, but if I want to grow artistically I have to shake up my world. I need to question it.

For instance, I have uncensored thoughts all the time. But, before I speak, write, or draw them I make them more socially “acceptable.” I think about whether or not my thoughts will offend others and modify the expression of them to something more palatable. I’m polite. Maybe, too polite. Should I be?

Furthermore, if I find self-censorship to be necessary for my own work, will I impose my standards on the works of others? Should I?

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

A wonderful post Kathy! Thank you.

My latest blog post was about this topic although I didn't clarify it well enough for most to realize it. It's hard for me to step out of my role as a "nice" person. And I'm not really so nice. I do believe that someday, I want to put that in my art. I'm still afraid because I worry I won't be liked. It's a risk.

For me, I don't think I impose my own self censorship standards on other people. My standards for other's work is much more tolerant.

I find you to be very tolerant Kathy. And no, you shouldn't be so polite. :-)))

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy,

Maybe self-censorship is part of the balancing act we have to do or choose to do to navigate the sticky world of clients, collectors, art galleries and people.

Celeste Bergin said...

I sometimes yearn to make a social statement...but I usually revert to "nice art" that does not offend anyone. I would like to think that if I have a huge idea that is burning within me that I won't censor myself...that I will go ahead. It hasn't happened yet...but stay may!

M said...

Censorship is not something I think about very often with reference to my own work. I am obviously interested in more mundane things as content or it would be crossing my mind. I've always felt that my work is a whisper and not a shout. I don't set out to shock but to engage the viewer in subtle ways to take a closer look. I think much of how we respond through art is directly related to our personalities and I'm a peacemaker. What else is there to say?

Celeste Bergin said...

Some time ago I went out to dinner with friends followed by some gallery hopping. We went to 2 galleries and then came across one that had all it's windows blacked out. There was a sign that warned people, that stepping inside might offend or disturb.
well, we stepped inside. The entire gallery was blackened and there were lights flickering in yet another we inched our way in there and in the middle of the room was a naked female body surrounded by red blood (fake blood, but whoa, it looked real). It was still very dark in this room and the "body" was only illuminated by a "slideshow" of words being flashed onto the wall. The words were derogatory of women. Well, we walked around the "body" and left. My dinner mates were fairly horrified. This was a "regular" gallery, BTW. I don't remember one specific painting or piece of pottery from that night..but I do remember that "show" (that I took to be a statement about continued violence against women). I wouldn't have ever censored a matter of fact, I am grateful to the artist and the gallery for being brave enough to create it. My dinner mates hated it..and I thought it was genius. This is the fantastic thing about art--we each make our own determination about things like what offends and what enlightens.

Mary Paquet said...

Kathy, I would say that Margaret's comment states my thoughts. I don't want to censor the work of others, but I am who I am. Recently I went to an exhibit at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and viewed part of their show, "Exposed
Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870."

When I got to a room that had a picture of a victim of war in Southeast Asia lying totally naked on a narrow cot missing his two lower legs and unable to prevent being exposed to the world, I had to leave. That's just me. I would rather spend my time on art that pleases me. I would never say that SFMOMA should not display that piece, nor would I say it's not art. It's just not art that I want to view.

hw (hallie) farber said...

I think I self-censor. However, I applaud those who step over the line. And I hope to be at the front of the line when your and Celeste's uncensored work is shown at the museum. I hate censorship in any form. (I remember the furor over Mapplethorpe's exhibit at the Corcoran.)

RH Carpenter said...

Reading about the life of Egon Schiele and studying his works on paper right now, I find this post very relevant. Could I - would I - paint nudes the way he did? What would be the reason for that? I would never do something just to shock but to delve into something and discover something about the subject. I think some of his work could be seen as pornographic and yet the delicacy of line and the use of color (the things I look at) are so appealing even if the subject is in-your-face. It reminds me of Jenny Saville and her paintings of obese women - subjects that make a statement and definitely aren't just a pretty pictures. Maybe that's what we want to accomplish with our work - a statement. But I, too, want to be seen as nice, so I do self-censor.

The Artist Within Us said...

Dear Katharine,

Forgive me if I not join the discussion on self-imposed censorship, as the picture of Venus de Milo recalls an even of censorship to which i was exposed.

I believe I was eight or nine years old when I first saw the statue in France at the Louvre. There were pieces of art that made an impact upon me, Winged Victory and de Vinci's painting Mona Lisa.

My mom purchased for me a postcard of each artwork and when we returned to the US, I took the Venus de Milo card to class and during art, I pulled it out and wanted to recreate the statue.

Well, the card was confiscated and my parents notified that this was inappropriate.

It is something I have never forgotten.

Warmest regards,

Mark Sheeky said...

I've not thought of censoring my work until last month, because last year a few paintings were rejected by juries or had to be taken down on grounds of unsuitability due to nudity. It rather surprised me. In film I think that censorship is too lax, and that idiotic violence far too prevelant but British censors are more worried about sex which doesn't seem as important to me. Ho hum. I paint the idea, whatever jumps out of my head, neither being sensationalist or conservative, but if I'm aiming to show something in a quiet public space I might now err towards selecting quiet public paintings for those places.