Scrutinized Art: The Many Faces of Visual Art Censorship

By Tapley, Erin | Art Education, November 2002 | Go to article overview

Scrutinized Art: The Many Faces of Visual Art Censorship


Tapley, Erin, Art Education


Perhaps it is an old cliche:

Life imitates art.

But it seemed very new

when I first experienced it

more as life,

less as an aphorism.

We were approaching the 1980s in my Art History 2 course, in the spring semester of my first year of teaching art history at a rural community college. Our class was ebbing closer to a photography unit that featured Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe, among others. My text for the course did not contain any proof that such artists had caused the rifts that inspired the Helms Amendment and outcry against the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). I figured that the editors did not want to limit their sales by including pictures that might offend some purchasers, but this did not help me explain anything to my students. And, surely, I could not leave it out.

I consulted older colleagues; the unanimous response was that I should offer a view of the images that inexorably rocked America's stance on public funding for the arts. They reminded me that social science and humanities classes were obliged to confront such controversies, since the sum of human experience is mainly a collection of conflicting ideas. To deny it would be like ignoring history.

I acquired slides of some of Mapplethorpe's and Serrano's more controversial work, and I also began to learn about the litany of other artists, such as Michelangelo-- who at one time or another have had artwork that had been censored or changed. I gathered these images, which were primarily from the 20th century, and presented them in conjunction with the topic of the day: "Censorship in Modern Art." My class was responsive and opinionated about all of the images. The majority of them felt that some of Mapplethorpe's and Serrano's images should be censored, but the most debate occurred after viewing Annie Leibowitz's 1991 Vanity Fair magazine cover featuring the naked and pregnant Demi Moore. While this famous photograph was certainly introduced in a more commercial venue, its value as a beautiful photograph is the question I offered to my class. As we pondered this thought, the idea of elemental values versus contextual values surfaced again as "what is good art anyway?" I believed my lecture and featured examples of "censored" artwork rightly caused us to think.

Fast forward several months. In the fall of 1998, 1 met with five students who were interested in becoming that year's editorial staff for our small college's creative magazine. The purpose of the magazine was to gather submitted poems, short stories, and artwork from any college student and select certain pieces for biannual publications. That semester, the group at the first meeting seemed unusually enthusiastic, so I asked that they assume duties that I had previously undertaken, such as creating eyecatching posters to solicit student submissions to the magazine. One week later, a black magic-marker sketch (Fig. 1) was delivered to my office, and I brought it to the college print shop for reproduction. I had been struck by the image; it was a linear rendition of a Demi-like woman with an elongated figure. Certainly pregnant, this persona seemed like a benign caricature, yet the face seemed peculiar-as if both apathetic and accusing. The caption played on the metaphor of art creation as a birthing process saying: "Your Baby is Due October 14th." The remaining text gave specifications about time, place, and eligibility for submission. En route to the print shop, I held it up to a few faculty members. Their reactions ranged from amusement to doubt. Some thought it was on the brink of offensive sarcasm, but others thought it was too interesting not to publish, so I dropped it off at the print shop, not knowing that there was little chance it would ever see the light of a Xerox. Two days later, the Dean of Faculty visited my office holding the paper by the corner as if it were a wet tissue and he said, "We just can't print this, it's bound to offend someone, and we feel like we just don't want to get involved in such controversy. …

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