Censorship of the Arts
Censoring the arts, through audio, visual or performance, has been an issue for ages, literally. Since there has been art there has been an opposing force of social, political or religious influence pushing to abolish, censor or alter works deemed offensive or harmful.
Works of Michelangelo, like ‘The Last Judgement’ in the Sistine Chapel, which brings people from around the world to appreciate, were called down for being unholy and immoral by the Council of Trent and work begun to cover any exposed genitals with fig leaves. It unfortunately fell to Michelangelo’s friend, Daniele da Volterra, to paint over the piece, earning him the nickname ‘Il Braghettone’, translated ‘the breeches-maker’.
Let’s jump ahead to something more modern. It’s 1989 and art student Scott Tyler has just opened his installation “What is the Proper Way to Display the U.S Flag?” The installation required a viewer to step on top of the American flag in order to view a photo album. And boy, oh boy did this cause an outrage. President Bush, at the time, called the piece “disgraceful” while Bob Dole commented “Now, I don’t know much about art, but I know desecration when I see it.” Some viewers were even arrested for having stepped on the flag. It was a piece that challenged the ideas of American imperialism and war and what the flag meant to people in different contexts.
One of our national treasures, Margaret Atwood, was just recently censored by the National Post in the advent of her comments on Stephen Harpers hair. The incident is now fondly titled “Hairgate”. This wouldn’t be the first time Atwood has run into censorship issues. Her book of a fascist, anti-feminist, dystopian future, “The Handmaids Tale” has been challenged nine times since 1990. It’s most recent challenge was in 2008 by a father in Toronto. He complained that the book depicts scenes of sexuality, brutality towards women, “anti-Christian overtones” after finding out it was required reading for the Grade 12 English class at Lawrence Park Collegiate. Russell Morton Brown, a retired U of T professor, caught wind of the issue and had this to say: “The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t likely written for 17-year-old’s, ‘but neither are a lot of things we teach in high school, like Shakespeare. …’And they are all the better for reading it. They are on the edge of adulthood already, and there’s no point in coddling them,’ he said, adding, ‘the book has been accused of being anti-Christian and, more recently, anti-Islamic because the women are veiled and polygamy is allowed. …But that ‘misses the point,’ said Brown. ‘It’s really anti-fundamentalism’.
In our own gallery we have a fairly controversial piece by Jordan Bennett. Billy Jacking is a short film that has been edited to have the 1970’s aboriginal hero, Billy Jack, set as the protagonist while Stephen Harper, using an edited version of his 2011 apology for residential schools, as the antagonist. Harper is heard to be defending the idea of residential schools and that they have made Canada a stronger country, while Billy Jack is there to give him a whooping for those who were affected by the schools. This is of particular relevance with the upcoming election just around the corner.
Recently, we have received calls to the gallery about whether or not it is appropriate to be displaying Bennett’s work. We believe, yes, we should be able to without fear of censorship. Art, in all it’s forms, gives us the ability to have public discussion about issues of morals, politics, sexuality, equality, gender and many other important matters of the time. Whether or not you may agree with certain artwork and the questions it may bring up, the artist should have the right to show their work. In having that freedom of expression we open up ourselves to other avenues of thought that we may not have lead ourselves down, otherwise. Being able to see the world from a different view point is how we all grow together as a community and a society.
So, perhaps treat yourself to something you consider outrageous, offensive or immoral. You might learn something about yourself or the world around you, and that is never a bad thing.