For all the rancor that gun ownership and the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution arouse these days, the First Amendment always has been the most contentious and remains so in our own day. Comstock laws in the nineteenth century that sought to prohibit “immoral” literature and flag-burning statutes in the twentieth century that aimed to protect Old Glory from symbolic protests eventually were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. This impetus to curb speech that one doesn’t like, however, has never died out completely; rather, it periodically goes into abeyance, reemerging from time to time. My speech should be protected, the myopic impulse goes, but we need to be protected from yours. In the past year, artworks—especially those in art museums—have been the catalyst for a number of high-profile disputes over what may be freely expressed and by whom.
Most remarkably, unlike what we assume to be traditional censorship, the challenges to our First Amendment rights to free speech have come not from government but from activist groups largely on the political Left. Most disheartening is how often these groups prevail.
Demonstrations and protests erupted at the Whitney Museum of American Art when a white artist’s work referencing the racially motivated lynching of Emmitt Till was included in this year’s Biennial, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum when an installation and two videos that portrayed animal cruelty were included in an exhibition of current Chinese art, at the Walker Art Center when an outdoor sculpture by a white artist decrying capital punishment was installed on museum grounds, and at the Dr. Seuss Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts when it installed a mural that included the image of a slant-eyed Chinese man in a coolie hat.
The painting of Emmitt Till at the Whitney, Open Casket (2017), by Dana Schutz, was the lone work among these examples that was left in place, even though a number of activists stood in front of the picture for a month or so in order to block viewers from seeing it. Fears that animal rights activists would cause damage to the artwork or the museum or both caused the Guggenheim to remove the three offending pieces. And, faced with the looming threat of a boycott, the Dr. Seuss Museum chose to paint out the offending Chinese figure, which had been part of the author’s first children’s book And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937). Sam Durant’s wood and metal Scaffold (2012) was removed from the Walker’s outdoor sculpture garden after members of the Dakota Native American tribe complained that the artwork was a painful reminder of the largest mass execution in U.S. history, in which thirty-eight Dakota Indians were hanged in 1862 in nearby Mankato, Minnesota. Durant’s installation was ritually buried by Dakota tribesmen.
In this past year, the right of artists to freely express themselves—usually, the bedrock of artistic liberty—has taken a back seat to the right of art museums to put together exhibitions for the benefit of the public. Kudos to the Whitney for not backing down, and shame on the others for buckling under the pressure.
While Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) has been long dead, Sam Durant was actually a willing participant in the removal and destruction of his own artwork. The problem, as he told me, was that there had been
no information made available ahead of time to people in Minnesota about the work. Dakota people passing by recognized the Mankato gallows because they knew very well what that particular gallows looks like. Since they had no information about what was going on, why a sculpture that included the Mankato gallows was being built there they could only assume that it was a celebration of the Dakota massacre and of the genocide of Native American people.
A failure on the part of the museum’s communications department would not normally merit the capital punishment of a work of art, but both the artist and the institution believed that placating a grievance-carrying minority group trumped the right of the larger public to view the installation. If the right to display an ostensibly museum-worthy artwork is not worth fighting for, what would the Walker’s director think is? A larger grant from the state arts agency?
Perhaps the largest number of artworks that have been covered over or removed around the country are not at museums at all but, instead, in the public sphere—monuments to Civil War Confederate generals and political leaders that generally stand in city parks and around municipal buildings in the Old South. The memorials mean different things to different groups—some whites view them as part of their cultural heritage, emblems of a bygone era, while many blacks see them as reminders of slavery and Jim Crow segregation whose effects have lingered into the present day.
The comparison of Civil War-era memorials to artworks in and around art museums such as Open Casket and Scaffold, however, is necessarily limited. First, many of the memorials have been on view for more than a century, a far longer time frame than objects included in special exhibitions. Their removal (to municipal storage facilities) does not mean their destruction or that the public will not see them again. Rather, the municipalities can relocate them to the grounds of willing private property owners or to historic houses and museums to visually help tell the story of the people who were important figures in southern history without having to be an ever-present reminder of oppression to those who find them offensive.
Perhaps most crucially for the issue of free expression, memorials are more akin to advertising or illustration art than to fine art, because the artists of memorials are producing images that are intended to be grasped immediately by viewers—the great leader, the great struggle, mourning the dead. One looks at them and ponders the subject of the image: General So-and-So looked like this; the great valor and courage of these soldiers; a civilization gone with the wind. At most, memorials reveal an artist’s technical skills. With fine art, we are more attentive to the artist’s point of view and interpretation, as well as how those ideas are expressed. It takes longer to “get” the art, in part because the artist’s vision may be expanding our own and partly because we are comparing the artist’s thoughts and interpretation with our own.
Back to museums. The largest question is what should museum directors do with art that may offend some visitors. Free expression certainly does not mean the freedom to shock and offend. Museum officials already know what to do in this area but need the courage to do it. One option, often used with displays that are not suitable for children is putting up signs that warn visitors of potentially disturbing artwork or by making more controversial pieces less accessible. They can hold pre-opening talks by the director or curator, as well as other talks—perhaps by the artist, perhaps not—during the interim in which the exhibit is up. They also can perform the most basic of curatorial tasks, which is to “contextualize”—provide background or historical information for—the objects on display with wall text or brochures or videos: you may not like this artwork, but we thought it an important piece to include in this exhibition, and here are the reasons for our decision. They need to stand up for themselves.