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Art in the Eighties : Censorship: A Decade of Tighter Control of the Arts

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In a sense, Judith Krug contemplates trends in censorship in the same ways a sommelier approaches bottles of wine--comparing them, introducing the contents to the palate, looking for subtle advantage of one vintage over another.

Krug has peculiar qualifications for this pursuit. She is director of the American Library Assn.'s Office of Intellectual Freedom, which for most of the last two decades has kept what amounts almost to a box score on episodes of threatened or actual censorship across the country.

It has been, she says, a curious trend in the making. Between 1980 and 1982, about 300 episodes a year were reported to her office--mostly pertaining to attempts to ban books from libraries or schools but including, as well, a range of activities in a variety of media. In 1982, however--an apparent censorship watershed--reported episodes abruptly increased to almost 1,000 annually.

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The rate stayed high and remained unchanged until 1989, she said, when it has shown signs of beginning to increase again--albeit gradually. Krug is the first to caution against making too much of such statistics. The big jump in 1982--the year after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President--could have been partially due simply to increased awareness of the existence of her program.

But it is clear, she says, that something happened--even if it was of uncertain magnitude.

It is a trend that, curiously, parallels a combination of political and social developments that have, according to Krug and other censorship authorities, resulted in an ironic reality: The conservative tide that washed Reagan into the presidency precipitated a still-growing trend toward government and societal pressure on freedom of speech and expression.

With Reagan out of office, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), also a former TV commentator, has emerged as censorship’s champion in the national political arena. The issue has not attracted the attention of President Bush--yet, anyway.

It has been, say Krug and other censorship experts, a confluence of moralistic social ferment driven by values dictated by fundamentalist Christianity and a not-unrelated conservative political agenda that demands that government get off of the backs of the citizenry but at the same time require conformity with stricter and more subjective moral standards.

The trends monitored by Krug have affected primarily the visual arts and literature. However, government censorship dominated broadcasting in the 1980s, too. A long-dormant Federal Communications Commission, spurred to life by religious lobbies such as the American Family Assn. and Morality in Media, began cracking down on radio and television programs that the commission found indecent.

More than a dozen radio stations and one television station were fined, investigated or formally censured by the FCC for broadcasting shows with sexual or scatological references the commissioners found to be “patently offensive” to the listening or viewing public.

Though it did not get beyond a daylong Senate committee hearing, efforts to label or ban sexually explicit and violent song lyrics from being sold on record albums were also undertaken by a new lobby in Washington called the Parents Music Resource Center. The center, founded four years ago by wives of several prominent Washington politicians, managed to exert enough pressure on several major record companies to get warning stickers affixed to some albums containing such lyrics.

But as the decade comes to an end, Krug sees a curious result. While there is no question, she says, that the number of censorship incidents has increased and continues to grow, a strengthening of the will to resist appears to have developed, too. After all, while fundamentalists attempted to completely suppress the film “The Last Temptation of Christ,” the picture was released and found perhaps a greater audience than it might have if the censorship campaign had not been mounted.

An attempt to amend the Constitution to ban the desecration of the American flag failed--though a statute containing the same strictures was enacted after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a state flag-burning law. The inhibition of political free speech remains to be determined.

Similarly, the photographic work that was at the heart of the decade’s most pitched censorship battle--this year’s fight over content-control of federally financed artworks supported by the National Endowment for the Arts--actually increased in visibility as a result of attempts to suppress it.

Eventually, work by the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe--an exhibit of which was canceled by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington but then picked up and shown to capacity crowds at the nearby Washington Project for the Arts--increased in value so much that an auction of the work raised significantly more money for AIDS research than Mapplethorpe’s will apparently anticipated.

Prices for work by Andres Serrano, whose image titled “Piss Christ” touched off the 1989 furor, rose steadily all summer and the photographer has been the focus of shows in both New York and Los Angeles. Prints of the photograph increased in market value from about $3,500 to $10,000 after publicity over the failed effort to suppress the work.

In all, said Krug, “I think we have more books on the shelves and in the classrooms today than we did at the beginning of the decade.” Anti-censorship forces, she said, have developed better tactics to thwart their opponents--just as the opponents have produced tactical enhancements of their own.

Despite this, the sense remains that a chill--difficult to perceive accurately and impossible to measure precisely--may have set in, giving way to an era of self-censorship by artists in a variety of media. The FBI’s program of library surveillance, in which agents visited libraries to check on the identities of people examining potentially controversial materials, became a cause celebre in the second half of the decade because of the ramifications of such actions in terms of intellectual intimidation.

As the ‘80s end and the national endowment struggles to regain its momentum, arts observers in a variety of media fret that, even if the Mapplethorpe and Serrano shows were eventually allowed to go on, artists and would-be artists will hesitate to produce potentially controversial work. Quantifying the extent to which this occurs is to photograph something not happening.

For a decade of broadcasting that began with deregulation, the ‘80s wound up with the strongest shift towards governmental regulation of programming since the 1950s.

As veteran talk show host Tom Leykis of KFI-AM put it, law and policy makers in Washington made it easier for anyone to own, buy or sell a TV or radio station by relaxing federal rules, but placed far more restrictions on what they could or could not air over those stations.

The harbinger of the federal crackdown on program content came in 1985 with the formation of the Parents Music Resource Center. Composed of the wives of several prominent politicians, including Sen. Albert Gore (D-Tenn.) and Secretary of State James Baker, the PMRC staged Senate hearings in 1986 to demonstrate how sexually suggestive and violent the lyrics to popular songs had become.

Though the widely publicized hearings (pop composer Frank Zappa actually recorded the hearings, put them to music and released the result on a record album) resulted in no legislation, the PMRC did not disappear but, instead, established permanent offices across the Potomac in Virginia, where it continues actively to lobby for lyric control. Several record labels have bowed to the pressure by voluntarily labeling albums with warnings when the album lyrics contain lewd, violent or suggestive lyrics.

The following year, the FCC joined the crackdown on suggestive songs, plays and morning drive-time chatter over the airwaves when Chairman Dennis Patrick called a press conference to announce the citation of three radio stations for broadcasting “indecent” programming.

Morning “shock jock” Howard Stern, whose program aired in Philadelphia and New York, was censured for broadcasting suggestive material about intercourse, penis size and euphemisms for sexual organs during morning drive time while two Southern California FM stations were cited for airing excerpts of a play about homosexuality and AIDS (KPFK in Los Angeles) and an allegedly lewd song entitled “Makin’ Bacon” by the Pork Dukes (KCSB in Santa Barbara).

The American Civil Liberties Union took up the case and forced the FCC to back down because its policy toward “indecent” programming remained ill-defined. Broadcasters had no clear guidelines as to what they could air and when they could air it, argued the ACLU lawyers.

But the commission maintained that it retained jurisdiction over program content, particularly when children were likely to be in listening or viewing audience and, in 1988, it struck again. This time, the target was television. For the first time in its 50-year history, the FCC fined a station for airing indecent programming. The owners of KZKC-TV in Kansas City were assessed $3,000 for broadcasting the theatrical movie “Private Lessons” during prime time, between 8 and 10 p.m. In levying the fine, the commission pointed to frontal nudity and raw sexual language as evidence of indecency.

KZKC refused to pay the fine and joined several national organizations in a federal lawsuit challenging the FCC’s right to censor “indecent” programming. But in the meantime, the FCC had found a staunch ally on Capitol Hill in Sen. Helms who authored a bill outlawing “indecent” programming 24 hours a day. The bill was attached to an appropriations bill and, in the waning hours of the 1988 legislative session, was passed into law.

Early this year, a panel of federal judges in Washington put the Helms bill on hold and ordered the FCC to hold hearings to better define what it meant by indecent broadcasting and when such broadcasting would be prohibited. Those hearings have not yet been held.

In the meantime, FCC chairman Patrick stepped down within days of the end of the Administration of Ronald Reagan, the man who appointed him to the commission. President Bush appointed his own chairman, businessman Alfred Sikes, along with two other new commissioners, but the fundamental policies on indecency did not change. Sikes was in office less than two months before he and the other new commissioners launched their own campaign against indecency.

In October, WLLZ-FM in Detroit was fined $2,000 for playing a song on a morning program entitled “Walk With an Erection.” The song’s lyrics do not contain any of the so-called seven dirty words defined in a notorious George Carlin comedy routine that brought about a 1977 Supreme Court decision which banned use of those words over the airwaves. But it does contain the kind of euphemisms that the FCC has defined as indecent since its first crackdown in 1987, euphemisms such as a reference to a male sexual organ as a “pink dolphin.”

Within the month, four more stations were fined for indecency, including KFI-AM in Los Angeles, where talk-show host Leykis was cited for broadcasting shows about penis size, sexual secrets and “the most disgusting thing you have ever put in your mouth.”

Last month, KFI paid its $6,000 fine without comment.

To Arthur Kropp, president of People for the American Way, the net result of the 1980s in terms of censorship’s momentum in all media remains a significant cause for alarm. “In a whole bunch of areas, it’s gotten worse,” Kropp said. The library association’s tabulations notwithstanding, said Kropp, a less comprehensive survey (begun in 1982) finds censorship episodes to be increasing as well.

“By 1989, groups that were using censorship became much more effective. The targets were everything from great literature--'Of Mice and Men,’ ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ to sex-education curricula.”

The way Kropp figures the equation, the ‘80s are ending with ample cause for alarm still recognizable. “The climate seems to be--and has over the decade become--much more hospitable to censorship,” he said. “It’s not such a bad word any more, and, very frequently and more and more, becoming a very useful political tool.”


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