The PC line on censorship

Anyone needing a refresher course in just how grim things have become in the chic precincts of the academic art establishment is invited to inspect the Fall 1991 number of the Art Journal, the first of two issues to be devoted to the subject of—censorship. Not so long ago, of course, this would have been an unlikely subject for an art journal. But ever since the controversy over federal funding for exhibitions of Robert Mapplethorpe’s brutalizing photographs of sado-masochistic behavior erupted a couple of years ago, little cries of “censorship” have filled the air like the buzz of locusts wherever politically correct intellectuals and artists congregate. Moreover, it soon became clear that this chorus was determined to construe “censorship” so broadly that anyone denied government largesse could claim to be a victim of oppression. It is not surprising that the Art Journal—an official organ of the College Art Association, the largest and most important academic organization of art teachers in the country —should come to function as a clearing-house for the orthodox position on such matters. Nor is it surprising that one of the two guest editors for this special issue should be Robert Storr, a recently appointed curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and, alas, an increasingly prominent source of those little buzzings.

Mr. Storr’s own contribution to this issue begins with an essay entitled “Art, Censorship, and the First Amendment: This Is Not a Test.” Buzz, buzz, buzz—you know the script: The United States is now in the grip of a fearsome right-wing effort to suppress free speech; artists are being muzzled everywhere. Presumably, even Mr. Storr must realize in his off-duty moments that there has never in history been a society in which artists and other citizens enjoy greater freedom from government censorship and social proscription than they do in late-twentieth-century America. All it takes is a stroll through the art galleries, a visit to the local newsstand, or a look at what’s available on cable television these days to remind us that one thing we are not suffering from is too little freedom of expression.

But Mr. Storr’s adherence to the imperatives of contemporary intellectual fashion requires that he ignore the evidence of his senses. “On every front,” he writes, “legal challenges are being made to the freedom of serious artists, clever opportunists, dedicated amateurs, and ordinary people to represent the world as they see it.”We wish that Mr. Storr could have cited one ordinary citizen, let alone one “serious artist,” facing such “challenges”: we would be there to take up the case beside him. But of course he adduced none because none exists. As it happens, the only area of our society in which free speech is seriously threatened today is the academy, where a wide range of politically unpopular opinion is regularly policed by bien pensants professors and administrators. Strangely enough, that phenomenon does not enter into Mr. Storr’s analysis.

Instead, what Mr. Storr offers readers of the Art Journal is a species of grade-school absolutism in which anything less than total freedom is rejected as intolerable repression. Accordingly, his chief concern with the First Amendment turns on the license to utter dirty words in public. “In the final analysis, freedom of speech isn’t so much a matter of when one may legally shout ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater but whether or not one may … yell ‘Shit!’ on stage in a publicly funded production—or ‘fuck!’” We hope that MOMA’s new curator found it exciting to write that sentence.

The stunning superficiality of Mr. Storr’s performance is epitomized by his claim that “defending free speech depends on a willingness … to break taboos when and wherever they present themselves.” It is worth pausing over this statement to contemplate what the nightmare of a society without taboos might be like. For Mr. Storr, however, respecting taboos is tantamount to “repressive decorum” and “general self-censorship.” In order to illustrate what he has in mind by free speech, he returns to the case of Robert Mapplethorpe, the “transgressive artist.” Among much else, Mr. Storr complains that the editor of The New Criterion, writing about the Mapplethorpe controversy in The New York Times, misled the public by not reproducing the offending photographs. Never mind that the Times, rightly, would never have printed them. (Nor, it might be mentioned, has MOMA exhibited them, though perhaps that, too, will change under its new curatorial leadership.) In Mr. Storr’s view, the failure to exhibit samples of Mapplethorpe’s sado-masochistic pornography was an instance of “preemptive and accusatory squeamishness.” To make up for the omission, he does us all the “courtesy” of reproducing in glossy exactness Mapplethorpe’s notorious X Portfolio, which features half a dozen grisly images of sexual torture and degradation.

If the measure of art really were its capacity to offend—as Mr. Storr and so many like-minded champions of the moment are eager to assure us—then Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs would be masterpieces. But offensiveness is merely offensiveness, not an index of artistic quality. It is shocking and, indeed, repulsive that a mainstream academic journal should agree to publish those photographs. In the end, though, it is perhaps even more shocking and repulsive that the Museum of Modern Art should now employ curators whose idea of artistic liberty centers around blatant examples of sexual pathology and whose model of free speech is the permission to swear in public. We must be grateful that Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison could not have foreseen that their labors on behalf of freedom would one day result in such repellent travesties.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 4, on page 2
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