No art, however grotesque or revolting, deserves to be censored.
What is the purpose of art? That is a philosophical question that no newspaper article could fully answer. Some immediate purposes, however, do spring to mind. The cultural world should educate individuals, teaching them something new. Plays especially can be deeply entertaining, uniting society together in amusement and wonder at a playwright’s talent. Culture, though, can perhaps be most powerful in its reflection of the real world. Through the medium of fictional plays or fantasy paintings, art can force people to confront their prejudices and consider a topic differently, if not for the first time.
It is because of this artistic purpose that censorship has been prolific in culture over centuries. Defined by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as “the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are ‘offensive’”, censorship has at its heart an external body – the state or pressure groups — deciding what individuals do and don’t deserve to see. It is because of the power arts and culture have to resonate with a civilisation in a way reading the news may not that bodies have been desperate to suppress work.
Individuals should be able to expose themselves to any kind of art and cultural medium.
In a liberal society, this should concern us all. Organisations should be allowed to perform any play, display any painting, or involve themselves with any group without fear of governmental repercussions. Similarly, individuals should be able to expose themselves to any kind of art or cultural medium. It is they, a free thinking citizen, rather than an authoritarian state, who should choose what culture deserves their time and attention.
Art censorship has recently returned to public discussion thanks to the very opposite of censorship: openness and transparency. According to NME, a notorious banned film, Ring of Fury, has been made fully available on YouTube. Released in 1973, it was banned by the Singaporean government for its “portrayal of gangsterism and vigilantism”. The story follows an individual learning kung fu to avenge his family, with the government fearing the film would encourage individuals to “take the law into your hands”.
Such a passive view of humanity robs individuals both of moral agency.
This again reveals the power of the arts. Through a fictional medium, Ring of Fury reflects and explores gang culture within Singapore. It is striking that the government assumed that artistic portrayals of vigilantism would encourage viewers to act in the same way. This negative interpretation of humanity – that we are supposedly incapable of thinking for ourselves and simply copy what we see on screen – has been used in numerous justifications to restrict the scope of art available to the public eye. Furthermore, such a passive view of humanity robs individuals both of moral agency and personal responsibility, which is vital in a fair criminal justice system for prosecuting individuals who commit acts of violence.
Policing the boundaries of art is a fool’s game. What is offensive to one person is perfectly acceptable humour to another. It has become easier, then, for censurers to determine which art should be removed on the basis of what causes distress and discomfort to others. This has been evident in numerous examples by the National Coalition Against Censorship. For example, in 2019, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) voted to remove 1930s murals that negatively depicted slavery and violence against Native Americans. Eventually the murals were not destroyed but covered with panels. However, this sets a worrying precedent.
It is not the purpose of art to make individuals feel comfortable.
While we all abhor what is portrayed in the murals, that is no reason for removing them. It is through the murals that the disgraceful racism running through America’s history is evident. Alongside a wider educational programme, the murals could be used as a tool for representing the historic and contemporary ethnic inequalities in society. On a broader theme, it is not the purpose of art to make individuals feel comfortable. The very opposite is the case. Only by witnessing such artwork is it possible to understand society’s developments and where improvement is still required.
Other examples and hypothetical scenarios can be considered. Over decades, sexual expression in art and literature was suppressed, once again denying agency and choice for those engaging with the content. In the past, plays and paintings portraying female emancipation and equality would have been censored, as censurers would most likely fear the calls and desire for equality such mediums would spark. Is that a reason for censorship then or now? Of course not. Similarly, musical theatre has often been the bedrock for celebrations of LGBT+ equality, which social conservatives would no doubt oppose. Again, that is no reason for any form of censorship. That some individuals may be shocked and regard a piece of art as abhorrent or obscene doesn’t mean they have any right to restrict the freedom of others to view the culture.
Artistic freedom, if not defended in traditional institutions, has found a beacon online.
Perhaps more worrying for and threatening to artistic expression is the rise of self-censorship. According to a 2013 report by Index on Censorship, which examined the role of offence in art, self-censorship looks at “work that has not yet been made” with the suppression taking place by artists and institutions. This is clearly distinguished from censorship, which is suppressing works already created. The report looked at how institutions may be forced to censor the work they present because of their reliance on private companies and donors to remain financially profitable. The artistic world, to some extent, has therefore become defined by the rise of averse attitudes, believing art should please, rather than shock, cause controversy, and create arguments.
Artistic freedom, if not defended in traditional institutions, has found a beacon online. According to the Index report, 72 hours of content is uploaded every single minute. While institutions have become less open to new ideas, the internet remains a place for freedom of discussion. This should be welcomed, according to the Frieze website, as art allows for nuance and debate which so often lacks in political discourse. It is of deep concern that institutions have become unwilling to confront difficult ideas. Even governments are now recognising the internet’s power as a medium for discussion, with legislation seeking to remove “offensive” and harmful speech. Once again, it is individuals who promote legal, but shocking, speech who could potentially face prosecution.
Certain series may be run where a particular piece fits better.
No theatre company, museum, or art gallery has the time, space, financial resources, or capacity to publish every work submitted. Certain series may be run where a particular piece fits better. Other plays or paintings may be judged as poor quality or not of an acceptable standard for the institution’s reputation. But nothing deserves to be censored because it is offensive, causes controversy, or creates a debate. Rather, these characteristics should be at the heart of an artistic institution to extend the discussion and further intelligence. A free society must allow individuals to decide what culture to receive and create. Embark on the road to censorship and it’s impossible to deviate. As the ACLU states perfectly, “censorship is like poison gas: a powerful weapon that can harm you when the wind shifts.”