Every new idea, every concept of things differing from that authorized current belief, must have its origin in an individual. New ideas are doubtless always sprouting, but a society governed by custom does not enourage their development. On the contrary, it tends to suppress them, just because they are deviations from what is current.
-- John Dewey, Democracy and Education
Censorship and art. What do you think of it? How do you feel about it? Are you for it or against it? Do you think it works?
In the recap of our ArtPrize experience, we wrote about the controversy behind Artist SinGh's effigy of Saddam Hussein hanging from a noose. All that remains of this work, is a giant, empty cage that stands amongst other ArtPrize entries in the middle of a busy parking lot. SinGH, who has burned the rest of the pieces out of protest, is now saying that his art was being censored and is demanding an apology from ArtPrize organizers. From what I gather, SinGH, who calls himself the "world's best stunt painter," was trying to make shock art. He wanted attention, and he got it. And here I was, naively believing that this new generation of savvy art-loving audience are impervious to being shocked; thinking that shock art is old news.
Old like Duchamp's 1917 urinal, Fountain, or his Nude Descending a Staircase that was proclaimed "not art" by Theodore Roosevelt.
Old like Chris Burden asking to be shot in his arm.
Old like Damien Hirst's preserved tiger shark, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.
Also old like Robert Mapplethorpe's X-Portfolio old. Do you remember the huge controversy over Mapplethorpe's retrospective show, The Perfect Moment, in 1989? It brought about the first criminal trial of an art museum that ended up splitting the art world into two camps. Even Pat Buchanan got involved, accusing the gay and arts community of suffering from "an infantile disorder."
Or old like Andres Serrano's Piss Christ old. Piss Christ seemed to have offended everyone. And as a result of its funding of the artist, the National Endowment of the Arts got its budget slashed in half. This work is back in the spotlight because it is currently on show at the Edward Tyler Nahem Gallery in NYC.
SinGH's piece made me wonder ... is there a point at which art becomes inappropriate, or can anything and everything be considered art as long as we call it such? What is artistic freedom? What are artists' rights? Can a work of art be deemed immoral? What should be the role of art? Is it the goal of art to raise the levels of provocation? And along those same lines, why aren't all urinals works of art? What is the difference between the MTV's Jackass stunts and the work of performance artists like Joseph Beuys or Chris Burden? What about the live birth performance by artist Marni Kotak? Why do we not call David Blaine's act of electrocuting himself art?
I have a difficult time formulating my answers to those questions. Perhaps it's because shock art tends to annoy me and I get terribly offended when animals are hurt and/or abused in the name of art. But I also think giving artists the freedom to express whatever s/he chooses is as important as offering the viewers the freedom to decide what is or is not suitable for viewing. And in that same vein, I think there is no point in trying to censor art. In fact, it's been proven that censorship only further arouses peoples' curiosity and interests. What is originally intended to be restricted always ends up being tossed in the limelight, which is probably why you end up with works like Captivity, by attention-seeking artists like Artist SinGH.
(image by Oakland Museum of California)