Conference on the Arts Tackles First Amendment Issues : Censorship: Freedom of expression controversy grabbed the spotlight at New York gathering of artists and academics.


A hard-hitting series of talks on censorship grabbed center stage this week at the College Art Assn.'s annual conference. Under the umbrella title, “The Thought Police Are Out There: Art, Censorship and the First Amendment,” 10 artists and academics addressed philosophic issues and hard cases.

The program, closing today at the New York Hilton, was a response to recent controversies that have threatened or curtailed public support of visual art. Among artworks that have been in the hot seat are sculptor Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc,” which was removed from a public plaza in Manhattan; David Nelson’s portrayal of the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington as a transvestite and Scott Tyler’s display of an American flag on a gallery floor, both at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; Andres Serrano’s photograph of a crucifix immersed in the artist’s urine, in a traveling exhibition; the late Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic and sadomasochistic photographs, in a show that was canceled at the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington, and a group exhibition about AIDS at Artists Space in New York.

As case after case has blown up in the press, many artists have come to feel that their freedom of expression is under siege and that they are victims of fundamentalist hysteria. This conviction led to the association’s censorship panels, which have spurred the art community toward political action.

While the conference speakers seemed united in their views on censorship, they came from different fields of study and approached the subject from various angles. Moderator and attorney Barbara Hoffman reviewed legal proceedings involving the First Amendment. Art historian Mary-Margaret Goggin drew parallels between the current situation and Nazi Germany.


Herbert Schiller, a UC San Diego professor of communications and author of “Culture Inc.: The Corporate Takeover of Public Expression,” warned of a pervasive corporate presence that censors in order to sell.

People can’t distribute pamphlets in shopping malls, “the new town halls,” because that would divert shoppers, he said. A world filled with corporate speech avoids everything that might be offensive and thus deter commerce.

Furthermore, we are seduced into thinking that having a choice of 12 brands of soap is “the essence of democracy,” he said. Individual voices have gone the way of labor unions and small farmers, while corporations claim the free speech once granted to individuals, Schiller contended.

Artist Hans Haacke also talked about the business world’s practice of “seducing to neutralize” opposition and how museums have fallen under the spell of corporate donors. “We are led to believe that we are getting something for nothing if we let business pick up the tab, but taxpayers pay the bill with the added attraction of seduction,” he said.


Carole Vance, an anthropologist at Columbia University’s School of Public Health, traced the current “moral panic” to fear of widespread changes in “gender arrangements that have detached sexuality from marriage and procreation.” This anxiety is fueled by “images of sexual shame,” such as Mapplethorpe’s photographs, which are taken out of an art context and interpreted as a sign of “immorality, lust or depravity,” she said.

That “archaic rhetoric” has been modernized, however, to put a more persuasive spin on the issues, she said. For example, censorship is now called “misuse of taxpayers’ funds” or “preventing the degradation of women.”

Several speakers pointed out that the art world has been ill prepared to fight right wing campaigns against freedom of speech. Rational, moderate arguments haven’t worked against the extreme emotionalism that characterizes controversial artworks as threats to the American way of life, they said.

“A broad and vigorous response is required,” Vance said. Artists must use “their interpretive skills” to “deconstruct” right wing campaigns.

“We need progressive muckraking to challenge them as aggressively as they attack us,” agreed Carol Becker, of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She advocated “a more strategic approach to the media,” recounting the debacles at Chicago. Becker noted that her school finally hired a group of consultants to come up with a slogan for the flag case: “Don’t tread on the Bill of Rights.” “The media liked that because it was one sentence,” she said.

The association’s call to action also took art schools to task for failing to prepare students to deal with censorship and not giving them a historical perspective. While the current situation is far from unique, past incidents have not been recorded in the canon of art history and politically effective artists have not been properly celebrated, the speakers said.

“Artists and art institutions have to learn how to play hardball,” Haacke said. “A democratic society needs a democratic art and we have a right to demand it.”