By Carter B. Horsley
In the United States, the worlds leading
democracy and upholder of the principle of basic freedoms put
forth in the Bill of Rights, the courts have slowly but surely
reinforced the rights to speak and publish freely, the nations
most important legacy to the world.
Generally, the American public is against censorship
of all forms although it understands its need in cases of "national
security." There are, however, many Americans who feel that
some things should be censored such as pornography and excessive
violence, and, occasionally, art.
Art can often be a very effective tool in proselytizing
causes and its subject matter can at times be controversial. In
recent years, the art of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano
has unleashed great storms of outrage for their content, the former
for his homo-erotic images and the latter for his sacrilegious
In September, 1999, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani
of New York City threatened to take away all public funding from
the superb Brooklyn Museum of Art if it did not cancel an exhibition
on "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection"
that originated at the Royal Academy of Art in London. The mayor,
who actually sought to evict the museum from its premises and
stopped a major payment of funds to it, took offense at such works
like Chris Ofili's "The Holy Virigin Mary," a painting
that incorporates photographic images of women's private parts
and elephant dung, and other "works of art" that showed
cut-up animals, describing them as "sick stuff." He
has also attacked the show as "Catholic bashing." Ofili
has won the Turner Prize in England.
Censorship generally fails and self-regulatory
and self-policing standards are usually more effective.
No one under the age of 17 was to be permitted
into the exhibition unless accompanied by an adult, which is reasonable
self-policing. The mayor, however, used this admission policy
as an excuse to intimidate and censor the museum and threatened
not only to take away its public funding but also to get rid of
the institution's board of trustees. The museum, in response,
decided to let in those under 17 although it still cautioned they
should accompanied by an adult.
The controversy heated up quickly. Rallies
in defense of the museum, with such speakers as Jane Alexander
and Susan Sarandon, among others, were held, night vigils against
the museum took place, and the issue became a hot topic on national
The mayor is wrong in seeking to impose his
taste on public and trying to penalize a major cultural institution
of the city. It is fine for him to criticize the exhibition, or
individual works if he chooses, but censorship is not the right
approach and here the mayor is dictatorially wrong in seeking
to suppress art, even if it might be bad art. In the face of mounting
criticism, the mayor said he and the city were not trying to suppress
the exhibition, arguing that the museum's contract required free
admission and his permission if it were to "close" the
museum, a reference to the fact that the museum initially said
that children under the age of 17 would not be admitted.
Other art institutions in the city and the
New York Civil Liberties Union have attacked the mayor's stance
in this issue and they are right. City Council President Peter
Vallone wrote the mayor a letter stating that the council will
not go along with the "de-funding" and the Association
of Art Museum Directors issued a statement defending the museum's
exhibition and "the free exchange of ideas" and criticizing
the mayor for "setting a precedent that could cripple museums
across this country."
To be against censorship does not mean to be
not critical. The free exchange of ideas is the very foundation
of democracy and the American way. The mayor is entitled to his
opinions and should, and does, have the courage of his convictions,
but he should not put the museums desperately money where
his mouth is.
Art is not a popularity contest and great political
leadership should not be, either. They both should be passionate
Philosopher-kings are rare enough that we should
not, sadly, expect aesthete-kings. We do, however, want political
leaders to be sensitive to the fundamentals of the freedom of
expression and Mayor Giuliani has shown himself to be a little
rough around the edges here when confronted with the cutting edge
of art, which can be ragged, rusty and raw and not always refined
The mayor does have a sense of humor. He clearly
was not amused at this exhibition and indeed many people may not
be. The museum charges admission and has great collections of
American and Egyptian Art among its vast holdings for those who
do not want to see this exhibition that caused a stir when it
was first shown in London. The show is avoidable and its audience
is not captive. Threatening to take away all the museums
public funding is wrong and overkill and it will probably increase
the museums attendance for the curious who want to see what
this brouhaha is about. That would not be bad because the Brooklyn
Museum is one of the citys great cultural assets and it
and the outer boroughs are too often overlooked and slighted.
The mayor might better spend some of his time
attacking the violence of video and computer games and working
with the Board of Education to make sure that our schools make
an extra effort to explain to our youth the real world consequences
of violence and perhaps also make sure that no public subsidies
are being squandered on companies that pander to, and profit from,
excessive, gratuitous violence in video and computer games, and
the like as the amounts spent on corporate tax breaks probably
exceeds the small amounts given to museums that directly enrich
Pornography, which has been around a very long
time, exploded in the public marketplace in the 1960s when
stores specializing in "XXX-rated" materials blossomed
all over central business districts and newsstands also began
to sell such publications rather openly, a reflection in part
of that decades "sexual" awakening and also of
the fashion industrys focus on titillation.
Pornography has not gone away, despite efforts
by New York City to ban its shops from most of midtown. It proliferates,
of course, on the Internet, and movies and television have steadily
stretched the boundaries of propriety to attract larger audiences.
It is also sold openly at many newsstands and magazine stores.
At the end of the 20th Century, violence in
the media has become a greater, and more legitimate concern. The
spectacular advances in special effects in the movies have whetted
the appetite for ever more dazzling, shocking and realistic images.
Sociologists, psychologists, and educators
frequently debate the impact of pornography and violence on the
American culture and periodically there are Congressional hearings
and national commissions.
There is an obvious explanation for the growth
in recent years of religious and moral groups of a "conservative"
nature that call for higher moral values in the country: pornography
and violence are pervasive and hard to avoid or ignore.
Common sense tells us that exposure to most
forms of pornography may be sexually arousing and even "prurient,"
but not necessarily destructive of traditional moral values. Some
of it can be construed as degrading to women but generally most
pornography involves showing people of both sexes enjoying sex
and, in that light, can be seen as having some educational and
healthy values. Such abandonment to carnal delights, of course,
can encourage people to experiment with their own sexuality and
that of their mates and in an age of veneral diseases and AIDS
that can have serious repercussions. If pornography were limited
to conventional sexual acts, the problem would be primarily an
educational one. Pornography, however, takes many forms and the
Internet abounds in websites, and usergroups, that offer more
"prurient" forms that generally would be considered
"perverted" by much of society. These "forms"
include bestiality, gay sex, unusual and/or "deviant"
sexual practices and devices, and sado-masochistic practices.
These "forms," clearly can be very disturbing to many
people and should not be readily available for children.
There are some "parental control"
computer software programs available to "lock out" such
sites but the sites proliferate faster than updates to the programs
and most people still are not good at updating many of their programs.
Furthermore, the problem is compounded by misleading E-mail messages
with innocuous headings inviting people to visit "adult"
sites. Most porno sites, to their credit, open with messages stating
that they contain explicit and possibly objectionable material
and should only be viewed by adults. Their home pages, however,
can be accessed simply by clicking "enter" and are usually
full of very graphic and explicit pictures in many categories
that are meant to entice surfers into subscribing to have access
to more. Similar material is also widely available and free in
various user groups on the Usernet section of the Internet but
the better Internet Providers such as America On-Line provide
customers with "parental controls" that can block most
of these from being accessed by other users, such as children,
on their accounts.
Parents must be vigilant and responsible and
take appropriate precautions, such as invoking the available "parental
control" programs and options. It would be helpful if the
porno industry would police itself more and stop its flood of
e-mail and also remove the explicit graphics from their home pages
and operate on a subscription basis. Some operators of these sites
have in fact kept a lot of the X-ness off their home pages, but
In the summer of 1999, one site apparently
managed to redirect links to non-pornographic websites to its
own on the Altavista search engine, one of the best, and such
stealth is certainly not to be tolerated, even if it did not involve
a porno site.
More disturbing is the practice of many newsstands
openly displaying pornographic magazines. There is nothing wrong
in selling them, but having them quite visible is another matter.
Violence, on the other hand, is a much more
important social concern and no one cannot be bothered by the
proliferation of violence, especially by young people, in the
past few years in the United States.
There can be no denying that the amount and
level of violence in American culture has dramatically escalated
in recent years. Those who oppose censorship, particularly of
violence in movies, television, and computer and video games,
say that no direct causal relationship has been scientifically
established between viewers and isolated acts of real, versus
virtual, violence. Furthermore, their argument usually goes, even
where there might be a causal relationship, the perpetrators of
real violence are a miniscule fraction of the population at large
and would probably have committed their violent acts without the
exposure. Those who profit from ventures with violence, of course,
like to minimize its possible affect on their paying audiences,
adopting a laissez-faire attitude that the customer is always
right, or whatever.
Violence and pornography, of course, can sometimes
have legitimate artistic purposes, but that does not mean that
incessant, unrelenting and gratuitous bouts of either can be therapeutically
While this is not a new problem, it has taken
on urgency because of the nature of many video and computer games
that have become obsessions for many young people and who often
spend several hours a day honing their killing skills in these
games. As technology has advanced, the "virtual" games
became more intense, more thrilling, and gorier.
The preponderance of very violent games is
staggering and make up the great proportion of games sold on such
video game devices as Sony Playstation, Nintendo and Sega Dreamcast.
While there are many fine titles that involve flight and sport
simulation or educational programs for reading and language, these
are not the most popular with young people and far too many parents
have ignored the recommended age levels for the games.
Again, it is the parents who are at fault for
not exercising proper parental control. Yes, it is true that not
all children who play such games will become serial killers, but
these games routinely drill into the players an insensitivity
to the reality of violence, especially since the players seldom
lose. In addition, these games have few, if any, socially redeeming
values and are often very deceptive. One Playstation game has
a charming animal character with an amusing name like Jocobo,
who traipses delightful across fine scenery but has nothing to
do with the guts of the game which is pure violence with other
characters and is probably in the game only to be switched to
quickly when parents stick their heads in the proverbial door.
The entire focus of many of these games is
in slashing and smashing opponents to death. Kill. Kill. Kill.
Sometimes there is a preface to the game that
might state that the players mission is to defend civilization
or whatever from the villains he is about to face, but that usually
is the extent of the redeeming social values if any offered in
these pscyhologically deeply disturbing games where being quick
on the trigger is all that counts and "collateral damage"
By selling such games, their producers and
distributors are making their shareholders happy but the result
is a generation of violence-enthused people who would have been
the pride of Adolph Hitler.
As a child, I loved my twin-holstered toy six-shooters
and was raised on The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy and John Ford
movies with John Wayne. I knew that guns were serious and could
kill but not everyone who surrounded my heroes were villains so
I felt I should look before aiming, a notion alien to most of
the video and computer games. My heroes also occasionally demonstrated
they could talk and understand social values, something also lacking
in most of the games.
Common sense tells us that if someone spends
a great deal of their awake hours in their important, formative
years concentrating on mayhem it will have an effect on them.
Thrills can be fun, but salivating, drooling assassinations as
a major staple of life is not a good diet.
Ask a child to read a book today and you are
a likely to encounter considerable resistance. Ask a child to
watch an old, black-and-white movie today and you are likely to
This resistance is understandable for a generation
weaned on 16-million color palettes on their computer screens
and spectacular special effects and morphing. I remember trying
to show a young person one of my favorite films, the 1950 version
of "King Solomons Mines" with Stewart Granger
and Deborah Kerr and the fantastic Watusi tribe, and that person
was very bored because it could not compare with the Spielbergian
romps with which he was familiar. I was disappointed and my feeble
attempts to explain that for its era it was every bit as good
as "Raiders of the Lost Arc" or whatever, got nowhere.
James Gleick, a former journalistic colleague
of mine at The New York Times and the author of several
excellent books on American culture, has recently published an
interesting book, "Faster," on the American fascination
The "sound-bite" culture of television
news, the rapid cut editing of movies, the quick zinger, the headline
are, in and of themselves, not the end of civilization.
Impatience, however, might be.
Impatience breeds intolerance and distemper.
Impatience tends to be insensitive to history.
The pernicious problems of pornography and
violence are not insoluble and require society and families and
businesses to excerise responsibility. Self-policing is always
preferrable to enforcing regulations that may be too sweeping
Americans are not the only nationality to be
simplistic and want easy answers to bothersome questions. Sometimes
they are too simplistic. The constitutional right to bear arms
was created in an era when arms were needed for survival and defense.
Times have changed and the Constitution has been amended many
times, but the gun lobby in the United States opposes sensible
prohibitions against such weapons of violence despite the ever-increasing
evidence that ownership of guns does not preclude violence, to
be it mildly.
There is no reason for any citizen of the United
States to have automatic weapons or handguns and it is incredible
that members of Congress who vote against such prohibitions get
re-elected and it does not set a good example for the younger
The film industry adopted a rating system a
generation or so ago and by and large it works because movie theaters
have box-offices where admission tickets have to be bought and
the ticket sellers can see the purchasers. Television began to
adopt a rating system much more recently, but the only obstacle
to viewing is parental control, if available.
The mayor's attack on the Brooklyn Museum has
brought it an enormous amount of publicity and television programs
have even shown Ofili's painting with close-ups of the "dung"
breast although not of the photographs of parts of naken women
that are placed like star's in the paintings golden background.
The imagery Ofili uses may be offensive to some, but certainly
is not thematically unrelated to the notion of a "virgin"
mother. Moreover, the painting has considerable style and the
museum has many other "Madonna" paintings of a more
conventional nature in its permanent collections. Many of the
exhibition's other works showing desicted animals and young girls
with genitalia for noses and a pedophile with the fingerprints
of young children are just as shocking. Furthermore, "The
American Century, Part II" exhibition (see The
City Review article), which opened the same month, at the
Whitney Museum of American Art has numerous works that could be
considered by some to be no less offensive including the infamous
works by Mapplethrope and Serrano, "Piss Christ." The
mayor might argue that the Whitney is not a city-owned museum,
but it receives public subsidies in the form of tax relief.
Art does not necessarily have to shock, but
sometimes it does. The Whitney museum has a sign at its door warning
that some of the works may be objectionable to some people. That
is a common-sense warning.
The question of whether it is appropriate for
the public to subsidize all, and any, forms of art is legitimate.
All art is not great and all art is not appreciated by everyone.
Great art is not necessarily popular and unpopular at is not necessarily
great. In the best of all worlds, perhaps art should not be subsidized.
Such an approach, however, would deprive all but the rich from
much of the enriching, educational experience of art for it would
mean the end of public museums, many of which have assembled their
treasures as tax-deductible gifts.
A life without art is poor.
Art by definition is the highest form of expression
even if it is not always pretty, or politically, or religiously,
We need more, not less, art, and we need political
leaders who have some sense of art and design for they are entrusted
with not only guarding our heritage but improving it.
Museums are very important and deserve public
support. The mayor's strong-arm tactics about the Brooklyn Museum
are preposterous. He and others surely can protest and boycott
its exhibitions, but they should not seek to destroy it on the
basis of one exhibition. Perhaps he might try to create an XXX-rated
zoning district for it and see whether that will pass political
muster. He could also expand the role of the city's Art Commission
to have it review plans for future exhibitions in publicly-assisted
museums, but he should first establish clearly which museums receive
public assistance in any form and perhaps confer with the Internal
Revenue Service. Such strategies are apt to run into a lot of
unnecessary and difficult controversy.
Censorship, whether direct or indirect, is
not the American way.