Thursday, December 16, 2010

Art Censorship 2010: The reaction to censorship is not always cut from the same cloth.

Art Censorship 2010: The reaction to censorship is not always cut from the same cloth.

Art censorship-- specifically within an art exhibit setting, has been a hot issue as 2010 draws to a close. What interests me most about the recent surge of censorship is the fact that so many individuals are exploring it on political lines-- while contradicting themselves at the same time by lack of action in other situations. I suggest that these individuals are contradicting themselves because they should be just as angry at any form of artistic censorship no matter the political motivations if in fact they are truly supportive of artistic freedom.

It appears that the anger fueled by recent controversies involving the censorship of art are directly impacted by the assumed political affiliation of the staff involved and heightened by the political affiliation of those who question their curatorial decisions. For example, the scandal involving the late David Wojnarowicz’s video, titled “A Fire in My Bell”, came into the fold as soon as the Smithsonian’s secretary, G. Wayne Clough, decided to have the video removed from the Hide/Seek exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery after minimal outrage from conservative Republicans.

From that point on G. Wayne Clough’s decision-- one representing the Smithsonian’s choice-- has been stamped as a right-wing conspiracy against homosexuals and a slap in the face to anyone who has been harmed by AIDS directly or indirectly. Those angry at Clough have called for him, and other staff, to be fired due to the decision to remove the video-- and many have suggested that Clough is deeply embedded with conservative Republican politicians. Fair enough. However, there are other recent exhibit censorship situations that have had no where near the momentum of criticism that the Smithsonian and Clough have received.

For example, when Jeffrey Deitch, Director of the LA MOCA, decides to censor street artist Blu-- who was commissioned to do a piece-- out of fear of public outrage it is stamped as a mere “curatorial choice”. Which, unfortunately, has been accepted by several art writers who normally would be up in arms over such an action if, for example, a Republican politician was indirectly involved in the the decision to censor art. It concerns me that people tend to only fight against the censorship of art when political players are involved directly-- and only when those politicians oppose their political and social views.

The reactions, or lack thereof, that some individuals have had in the face of both of these issues of censorship forces me to ask-- Why are individuals within the professional art world not just as angry with LA MOCA as they are with the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian? Why are they not calling for Jeffrey Deitch to be fired just as they have called for Clough and others to be fired? Is it because Deitch is seen as ‘one of the boys’, so to speak? Honestly, I’m at a loss when thinking of the reasoning behind the very different opinions that have been presented between these two issues.

The fact remains that two works of art have been censored-- and that is what I think should be the focus instead of trying to make a political game out of who was involved with the choice or not-- and how one side of the political extreme will benefit by protest. These are two works of art that staff involved with new would spur debate and would fuel controversy-- which is important! Yet both have been censored. Potential political motivations aside-- I think the real issue at hand is that those behind the ‘curatorial choices’ need to be drilled as to why they made their choice and as to why they are not upholding creative/expressive freedom in places where upholding that freedom-- that clear sign of liberty-- should be strongly secured.

The Smithsonian’s Clough has been called spineless and a political tool. If that is so I would suggest that Jeffrey Deitch is just as-- if not more-- spineless, and even more of a political tool, for his decision since there were far less public complaints-- if any-- involved in his decision to censor. Jeffrey Deitch has downplayed his ‘curatorial choice’ by stating he was not aware of what Blu had in mind due to lack of communication. He has stated that there is no controversy to speak of because no censorship was involved. Obviously Mr. Deitch needs to look up the definition of censorship.

Again, what alarms me about this is that many key art writers support Deitch’s choice blindly-- and I think much of that has to do with who he is instead of really looking at what he has done in regards to Blu’s mural and the message that his choice establishes concerning controversial art and how said artwork should be dealt with. After all, Blu’s mural has already been white-washed, destroyed-- “A Fire in My Belly” on the other hand has easily found new homes, so to speak. Deitch took something from the public that we will never get back aside from trace evidence in the form of photography or video-- and Blu was not allowed time to finish the mural even in that respect all because of concerns of public outcry.

Normally forms of street art in general happen to be about making a statement that the community may not exactly agree with. Jeffrey Deitch, of all people, should know this. Street art-- in general-- tends to be a socially aggressive form of art. That is part of the risk. It strikes me as odd that Deitch would tame street art via means of censorship. I personally enjoy forceful art that pushes viewers out of their comfort zone. I think the problem today-- even where controversy is concerned-- is that people want a comfortable art. Even controversy can be comfortable if it is something we have grown to expect. In that sense, Jeffrey Deitch has not exactly done a public service with his decision to censor-- and destroy-- Blu’s mural.

The key point to consider is that Jeffrey Deitch has exhibited the street artist Blu in the past and I find it very hard to believe that he was not aware of the directions Blu would possibly take with the mural. After all, Blu tends to focus on topics that include military deaths and injustice-- and has been critical of America’s show of strength in regards to economic and military power. Deitch knows this artist, knows his motivations, and clearly wasted this artists time-- as well as the chance for public debate-- simply because he feared it may cause a public upset. Since the exhibit the mural was to be a part of focuses on graffiti art-- which does not cater to the assumed standards of the public at large-- I find Deitch’s decision to be laughable as well as a disgrace. The validity of his motivations should be questioned as Clough’s have been-- if not more.

The street artist Blu-- who was at first silent about the issue-- is now making it very clear that a ‘curatorial choice’ is indeed censorship, stating on his blog, “it is, in fact, a CURATORIAL CHOICE that involves the CENSORSHIP of a mural.”. Blu appears to be alarmed that so many art writers are giving Jeffrey Deitch and LA MOCA the benefit of the doubt by describing the censorship of his mural as a curatorial choice-- and I don’t blame him for being concerned. Creative freedom has been stabbed in the back by Jeffrey Deitch!

In my opinion, a curatorial choice should occur before commissioning an artist or before the art is placed on display-- anything else is censorship in its purest form. Cleary Jeffrey Deitch has censored art at LA MOCA-- it should be called as it is instead of sugar-coated because of who he is and what he has represented in the past. I tip my hat to Blu for standing up for his art and for art in general. Sadly, I can't say the same for some of the individuals writing about the situation-- individuals I assume would have taken a harder stance against Jeffrey Deitch if politicians were directly involved in his decision to censor.

I'm also concerned with how artists are reacting to public funded art exhibit censorship as of late. For example, I’ve heard that an artist involved with the National Portrait Gallery Hide/Seek exhibit has requested that his artwork be removed from the exhibit in protest of the late David Wojnarowicz’s video being banned from the exhibit. I personally don’t think that is good decision-- nor is it a good form of protest in regard to creative / artistic freedom.

I am of this opinion because it potentially sends a message to curators that they should work with art that is more socially comfortable, so to speak, or face a situation where artists request to have their work pulled from an exhibit if things don’t exactly go as planned. In other words, if curators know that artists may bail out when a heated controversy occurs they might take that into consideration when putting the exhibit together in the first place. That is not, at least in my opinion, the direction we want to see public funded art exhibits go.

I understand the motivation behind this artists request-- I'm just not sure if it will send the intended message that he desires. ‘Curatorial choices’ are not going away-- the censorship of art has a long history. Those who support creative freedom MUST face it head on. They must make sure that their visual message is seen-- especially during the fire of controversy-- the heat of debate. This is not a time to run with our tail between our legs as Jeffrey Deitch has done at LA MOCA. Thus, I truly hope that this artist reconsiders his position on the matter in regards to his choice.

It appears to me that the reaction to censorship is not always cut from the same cloth. The blunt of the outcry over the recent surge of art censorship within public institutions is politically motivated instead of being focused on the assault of creative freedom and visual information that has obviously occurred in both situations. In my opinion, it would be best for individuals to sound the war-cry whenever instances of artistic censorship-- even if it is sugar-coated as a ‘curatorial choice’ or ever if we don‘t agree with the themes explored in the art-- happen regardless of the political fence that people tend to fight around.

In closing, any defeat at the hands of censorship is a defeat for all of us who love and admire art and the meaning art has for societal debate. We can’t take sides depending on who is involved-- we must call it as it is and make it known that we do not agree with artistic censorship. Period. We can't be afraid to insult powerful mainstream art world figures, such as Jeffrey Deitch. Furthermore, art writers on all levels need to be wary of contradicting themselves when facing censorship in general-- don't cry to me tomorrow if you fail to do what is best for art as a whole today.

(I'd like to add that I personally think that our public funded institutions for art should be politically neutral spaces where all political thoughts, social views, and ideas can be explored for the benefit of public debate and social dialogue. What is exhibited should never be placed in a political stranglehold out of fear that a percentage of the population will be upset. This idea that public funded art exhibits must be comfortable and not problematic in regards to public opinion needs to vanish-- it damages the strength of art as a whole. Furthermore, verbal, written, and visual debate is a very important aspect of societal and cultural growth-- it should not be hampered.)

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin


  1. Mat Gleason writing for the Huffington Posts claims that Deitch's decision was a good one because the mural was near the only war memorial for Asian American Servicemen. He rants about how if it had stayed it would have sent the message that those families loved one died for nothing. What about all the war bashing art that has made targets of the soldiers who have died in Iraq? Matty boy must not care about them or the fact that it is an ongoing struggle. If he did he would be telling galleries and museums in New York City to not display art that depicts dead soldiers because New York City was hit by terrorists and many soldiers active right now in Iraq depart from New York. That is probably the only reason people are not complaining about Deitch like they would if a standard war memorial where mostly white service people are buried or honored was near it. The art world only cares about service people when they are not white. If the mural had been near a war memorial not focused on a minority I'm sure Matty boy would be calling Deitch out. He must be a slave to the political fence you mentioned!!!!!!!!!! LOL

  2. What about opening up exhibition space to new art and consigning old art to the store room?