Censorship in its broadest sense refers to suppression of information, ideas or artistic expression by anyone. It ultimately keeps people from experiencing life at its fullest. All types of censorship can be viewed as restraining, as the effect limits diversity in every way. As long as there have been artists, there has been censorship. Society has had as many reasons for censoring art, as there have been different expressions of art.
Throughout history the main reasons found for censoring art have ranged from being based on religious and racial offense to lifestyles and values that seek to undermine and deviate from the traditional American family. Some societies where leadership has not been as strong have sought to exert control by restricting or censoring art, music and literature. It would seem that leaders feel that censorship allows for more power and control (Haiman, 1998). According to Franklyn S. Haiman, "censorship springs from a fear that the expression if not suppressed, will do harm to individuals or society as a whole. So-called obscene material is purged to prevent poor standards and morals in children". Some feel strongly that the truth is that art should never be censored because its value lies in testing limits and putting the assumptions of civilization itself on trail (Haiman, 1998).
In looking closer at censorship, especially in the Art world, it appears the more restrictions that have been attempted to be placed on artists and their works, the more outlandish their works have become. Take for instance, a Crucifix in a bottle of urine, or the Virgin Mary made with elephant dung. These appear to be what they mean when they say, "a picture is worth a thousand words". The real expression in these types of art might really be aimed at the folks who initially tried to suppress the artists to begin with. In the world of art, censorship comes in many different forms. Some take the form of direc threats that can come across as subtle suggestions to conform to public morality, for instance, when the Pope recommended that Michelangelo paint fig leaves on Adam and Eve (Hovagimyan, 1998).
Even more direct types include actual withdrawal of funding. In Charlotte, North Carolina, County Commissioners ended funding for any art projects in the county as a result of the Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, Angels in America and Six Degrees of Separation, which both contained portrayals of gay life in America. Considered deviant and incompatible with family values, both were greeted with pickets and protests from local conservatives. The vote ultimately prevented 2.5 million dollars annually from going to arts groups in that county. The County Commission determined that county money will not be given to art agencies that promote, advocate or endorse behaviors, lifestyles and values that seek to undermine and deviate from the value and societal role of the American family (Ferrara, 1997). The biggest weapon in the fight against censorship is the 1st Amendment.
The 1st Amendment to the Constitution of the United States is the best known provision of the Bill of Rights. It prohibits Congress from making any laws that abridge or restrict freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or the right to assemble peaceably and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances" (Berns, 1995). The 1st Amendment exists to protect what is unpopular, because if only the ideas that are popular were protected, it wouldn t be needed. Ultimately, the 1st Amendment was developed to guarantee freedom.
One of the most recent examples of fighting for this freedom came from the Brooklyn Museum of Art, when the Mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani ordered the withdrawal of an exhibition or face losing funding from the cities annual subsidies of $7.2 million. He chose to deliver his ultimatum during a routine briefing for the City Hall press corps. Although he admitted that he had only seen pictures of the exhibit in a museum catalogue, he did state that it was "composed of some pretty sick stuff". It was reported that he was surprised and mortally offended as a Catholic and a Gentleman. The exhibit, called Sensation, contained a dead shark in a tank of formaldehyde, a sculpture carved in eight pints of the sculptors frozen blood, a biogenetic merger of fiberglass schoolgirls tricked up with a penis where one would expect to find a nose, the artificial head of a cow decorated with a swarm of live maggots giving birth to flies. Even worse and most appallingly, the mayor had come across an image of the Madonna in which her right breast was indicated by a tiny clump of dried elephant ding.
The mayor responded that "we will do anything to remove funding from the museum, until the director comes to his senses" (Lapham, 1999). As a result, the museum filed a lawsuit under the flag of the First Amendment, the action undertaken" in the interests of all public institutions- museums, universities and libraries that are dedicated to the free exchange of ideas and information". Notable literary figures, among them Norman Mailer, signed a full-page statement in the New York Times endorsing the principle of artistic freedom. Mayor Giuliani's mistake was to use this Art as a political statement. He picked a quarrel with a museum to advertise his Senate election campaign and attempt to sway voters who might wish to see him as champion of the old moral order, a defender of the Catholic faith, a friend of family values, the hope of innocence regained (Lapham, 1999). Ultimately the exhibit opened, and drew record crowds along with television coverage worldwide but the real victory was that censorship was not prevented.
In conclusion, I have to say that censorship seems to be applied where it best fits society. It is also easy to see where it can and is abused on a regular basis. Growing up as a Catholic, I can see how many people were deeply offended by parts of the exhibition, and personally I would not go to see it. However, that is where I believe in the power of the 1st amendment.
Just because one person sees something as inappropriate or even vulgar, does not mean it is that way for everyone, nor does it make it any less a work of art. As a Democratic society, we are given the rights and freedoms to choose for ourselves and we all should be allowed to do just that. Censorship is an assault on the rights of all of us. We must continue to fight for the freedom to read, to see, to know and to think for ourselves.