Beyond the Bubble: Censoring Art

by Andrea Nease | 10/13/14 6:33pm

If you ask Google to define “censorship,” this is the result: “the practice of officially examining books, movies, etc., and suppressing unacceptable parts.” What qualifies as “unacceptable,” and why does the definition of “unacceptable” seem to change daily?

There is no longer a distinct boundary of society’s comfort zone when it comes to the “unacceptable.” Genres featuring ambiguous pieces of art that may face censorship include everything from risqué YouTube music videos to the suppression of fine arts exhibitions — painting, theater and writing.

Censorship is far from new. But the subjective assessment of what art is “acceptable” and what art is censored is a new trend. Even before censorship laws, government parties and powerful individuals suppressed what fit their definitions of “unacceptable.” Socrates had to drink poison hemlock for disseminating seditious ideas and corrupting the minds of the youth.

Before examining the differences between media or television censorship and fine arts censorship, let’s look at two recent examples of art suppression.

In 2005, Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin founded Belarus Free Theatre, a group that performs in Belarus and the United Kingdom. The group aims to overthrow the command of President Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. This is quite a lofty goal, but through her troupe’s usage of fearless theatrics and courageous depiction of various political traumas occurring in Belarus, Kaliada hopes to introduce awareness and inspire political action.

The theater hosts its plays underground and encourages audience members to bring their passports to the show, as in the event of a police raid, which is common for the theater group, the audience may be subject to detainment or arrest.

This brand of censorship is prominent in many parts of the world, most commonly Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Political censorship aims to maintain power. But when does political censorship stop protecting the people from corruption and begin suppressing their freedom of speech?

Banksy’s latest guerilla graffiti piece in Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, England, appeared early this month and was painted over shortly after because Tendring district council called the mural offensive and racist. Banksy’s latest piece commented on immigration. The mural incorporated a gaggle of pigeons facing a bird, spouting comments such as “go back to Africa.”

In the art world, if a piece has potential for controversy, it receives a double take. If that controversy is relevant to social justice, political equality or quite even sexuality, that piece is not going to go up in public without a fight.

This apparent trend of censorship does not apply to television, and more specifically, the U.S. shows classified as “comedy.”

If you have seen shows such as “South Park,” “Family Guy” and “Tosh.0,” you may be acutely aware of the obscene topic choices, misguided jokes and the distasteful plot developments that commonly feature in them.

“I haven’t seen a Jew run like that since Poland 1938.” This line appeared in season one, episode four of South Park, “Big Gay Al’s Big Gay Boat Ride,” which aired Sept. 3, 1997. Now, how did a comment such as this make it through, uncensored, at the turn of the 21st century?

Banksy created a social commentary about racism using pigeons to fulfill his portrayal and was painted over within a matter of days, yet television allows individuals like Daniel Tosh to comment on abortion with one-liners such as, “What if the doctor told you your baby was going to be really ugly?”

It’s unnerving to realize that in a country that has loosened its censorship in recent years, important social issues have hit a plateau while distasteful comic relief appears to have no limits. Why does the ambiguous role of censorship appear to target art that urges progress while ignoring the disrespectful attitude that modern television teaches future generations? If our culture deems vulgar television acceptable then there cannot be a double standard employed for different genres.

In a world where racist slurs and stereotypes can be broadcast on national television, I worry that the social issues being approached by real artists are going to be continually pushed aside.

Art is expression. Art does not tell you what to think. In that definition, how could almost any piece of art be deemed “unacceptable”?

You might be thinking, “Dartmouth is a liberal place — this kind of nonsensical censorship doesn’t happen here.” Or does it?

Many students are familiar with “The Epic of American Civilization,” the mural series José Clemente Orozco painted for the College in the 1930s. But you may not be familiar with the work of an artist from the Class of 1914, Walter Beach Humphrey, who created his own mural inspired by a drinking song written by poet Richard Hovey, a member of the Class of 1885. The Hovey Mural, pained by Humphrey, depicts the founding of Dartmouth by portraying Eleazar Wheelock and a Native American “Big Chief” forming the institution with 500 gallons of New England rum. The work has been closed from viewing since 1979 and was completely covered in 1983. Censorship is present everywhere, including here.