Adding Insult to Imagery? Art Education and Censorship

By Sweeny, Robert W. | Art Education, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Adding Insult to Imagery? Art Education and Censorship


Sweeny, Robert W., Art Education


The "Adding Insult to Imagery? Artistic Responses to Censorship and Mass-Media" exhibition opened on January 16, 2006, in Kipp Gallery on the Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) campus. Eleven gallery-based works, 9 videos, and 10 web-based artworks comprised the show; each dealt with the relationship between censorship and mass mediated images. Some images were censored in previous instances: Mail-A-Virus (2005) by xtine, was removed from a new media exhibition sponsored by Eyebeam titled "Contagious Media" (Hansen, 2005). Missing Stereotypes (2005), by Bill Fisher and Richard Lou, was removed from the Quinlan Arts Center (Gainesville, Florida) for dealing with the (apparently) taboo topic of runaway bride' Jennifer Wilbanks, and the Latino identity of her fictitious kidnapper.

Many of the works in the exhibition referenced the role that the mass media plays in how we understand the war in Iraq. The general tone of the exhibition was serious and confrontational as many artists used images from anti-war protests and soldiers killed in action. A few works, such as Missing Stereotypes (2005), addressed serious issues through humor or ironic detachment. While the opening was well-attended, the exhibition was not as controversial as I had anticipated.

Why was this exhibition not so controversial? In my curatorial statement, I asked whether the meaning of mass-mediated images could be changed through artistic appropriation and adaptation. However, viewers did not appear to be concerned or angered either at the campus show or at the Central Missouri State University exhibition, where the work later traveled in September 2006. Was it due to the use of heavily mediated images, such as the photographs from Abu Ghraib, which many had seen before? In other words, did the art represent ideas that were already a part of mainstream culture? Were the images too easy to understand, as one viewer remarked? I continued to ask myself these questions, long after we returned the works to the artists, the gallery spaces were painted over and used to display new works, and the show existed as a vague memory, and an infrequently updated website.' Is the discussion of censorship irrelevant in the gallery, the classroom, or the community? Is appropriation an outdated artistic approach? Should art educators teach about such controversial images as those from Abu Ghraib (Parly, 2005), or the recent cartoon contest that asked Danish cartoonists to represent aspects of Islam? Is censorship appropriate in certain instances, when religious beliefs are addressed, or personal safety is an issue? This article aims to explore these questions, beginning with the inspirations behind the exhibition.

Banned Books and Impounded Images

In the summer of 2005, I volunteered to sit on an exhibition committee on the IUP campus dealing with National Banned Books Month. We decided that we would also include censored works of art in the displays, which were titled "Banned Books and Impounded Images." I was to create a display dealing with the history of censored art in the 20th century, and also provide some contemporary examples of censorship. These would be exhibited in the Stapleton Library on campus, where many would have the opportunity to view and respond.

This project was part of a larger series of activities taking place on campus, as part of the Citizenship and Civic Engagement Initiative (CCEI) begun by incoming President Dr. Tony Atwater. The CCEI was connected to the American Democracy Project (ADP), a nationwide initiative coordinated by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, which aims to increase the awareness of relevant political and social issues within the higher education system (ADP, 2006).

My contribution to the "Impounded Images" display was a history of censorship, which included a discussion of the "Degenerate Art" confiscated by Hitler during World War II, along with more recent excerpts from the culture wars: the Robert Mapplethorpe trial (1990), the "Sensation" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum (1999), and the conviction of artist Mike Diana on charges of obscenity (1994). …

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