The Art of Censorship

Daniel Grant writes at Inside Higher Ed about the question of controversial art: “There are no rules of the road to help art instructors and college administrators in this realm.”

Actually, there are many rules of the road long established by the art world and the theorists of freedom of speech. It’s very easy: you are not allowed to engage in physical harm or violate the rights of others by damaging the property of other. But Grant’s essay is a very disturbing embrace of censorship at art schools.

A key example Grant offers is an art student who nearly kills himself by locking himself in a box full of snow. This seems easily regulated by a prohibition of physical harm. What shouldn’t be acceptable is the new regulation Grant describes at the Maryland Institute College of Art, which prohibits “works that involve physical/emotional stress (potential or real) to the artist and/or audience.”

This is a typical example of how colleges can expand campus rules to absurd new heights. You take a legitimate form of regulation: physical harm. Then you use a slightly vaguer term instead of harm: “stress.” Then you add on a completely different kind of regulation: “emotional.” Then you add on yet another vague term: “potential.” Pretty soon, you’ve got a regulation like the Maryland Institute College of Art, which could be used to ban most of the great art ever produced. After all, what art doesn’t cause “potential emotional stress” in someone? Obviously, any nudity causes potential emotional stress in some people. That wipes out a lot of art at the start. And any political art is pretty much guaranteed to cause emotional stress. And wouldn’t we have to worry about the potential emotional stress experienced by an agoraphobe seeing a landscape painting or a photograph of a crowd?

This is an example of the slippery slope created by a box of snow.

Grant dismisses any concern about censorship: “art faculty seem immobilized by the term ‘freedom of expression.’” No, art faculty seem legitimately concerned about the administration trying to limit artistic freedom by vague and arbitrary rules that have no connection to artistic merit. Yes, maybe some of the bumbling faculty depicted by Grant should have displayed more common sense and given better advice. But that’s no reason to adopt incredibly repressive rules.

For many years, I’ve been following cases of campus censorship involving images, including art and cartoons. I want to create a traveling campus slideshow of censorship. I’ve often wondered if this slideshow might be banned from many colleges, but I thought that art schools would be one place open to a display about artistic censorship. Now, I’m not so sure.

Back in 2008, when the School of the Art Institute of Chicago banned a documentary about Barack Obama from being shown in its Gene Siskel Film Center, I thought that this might be a case of bumbling errors by artists who misunderstood non-profit law. Now, I wonder if it’s a growing trend of art schools being run by professional fundraisers who have no regard for freedom of expression.

The growth of administrators like those admired by Grant mean that faculty and students need to take action to protect artistic freedom. Instead of administrative fiat deciding these issues, a Committee on Artistic Freedom should be established to adjudicate these issues. If the administration refuses to agree to this, then students and faculty should establish one on their own to investigate cases that might arise.

Indeed, Grant seems to regard art school as being more like the elite finishing schools of centuries past than a real college: “Maintaining standards and order is not reactionary (‘the critics hated the impressionists, too!’) but helps students learn larger lessons of propriety.”

I’m sorry, but it’s generally the job of an art school to teach art, not propriety—and to the extent that it might be, the proper way to teach propriety is through advice and voluntary cooperation, not by administrative regulation on controversial artwork.

Much of my disagreement with Grant’s op-ed is simply a matter of taste: I have a taste for artistic freedom, and he dislikes it. But at one point Grant proposes something fundamentally unethical. Grant claims, “potentially offensive artwork may be edited out for reasons of space rather than content.” That statement literally makes no sense. If you are editing out artwork because it’s potentially offensive then, ipso facto, it is because of the content, not the reasons of space. What Grant meant to convey was this: “Potentially offensive artwork should be censored, but the administrator should lie to everyone and pretend it was done for reasons of space.”

What Grant proposes is completely unethical and antithetical to the spirit of an art school.

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.