Updated: Apr 20, 2020
I saw a post from an artist on Instagram recently talking about how his work was reported and taken down due to the reports, the work wasn’t vulgar or containing anything violated “community guidelines” (nudity, gore, etc.), it was just reported and then taken down. The poor guy was outraged because there was no appeal process, no one on the administrative side cared, someone just didn’t like his stuff and successfully got him censored. This got me thinking about censorship in the modern era and how we’ve embraced so many different styles or mediums as art but things are so easily censored if the right people don’t like it. So, this is going to be a multi-part series where I examine modern institutions and how they’ve unjustly censored art. I’m a huge believer that art shouldn’t be censored, we put forth this notion that, “anything can be art,” and that’s fine when someone just puts a mug on the floor of a gallery and calls it minimalism, but when there’s an element of nudity or gore or something unfavorable to some people then suddenly it’s not art and it needs to be censored. It’s an unjust and unfair situation that’s hurt a lot of artists.
I want to begin this case study by looking Andres Serrano’s 1987 Photo, Piss Christ. The image is simple in nature, Jesus on a crucifix submerged in a yellow liquid, Serrano would go on to explain that the image was of a small wood and plastic crucifix submerged in his own urine. The piece was originally displayed in 1987 at the Stux Gallery and was generally well received, it’s a very interesting and thought provoking image after all. But it was in 1989 that the controversy began after U.S. Senators Al D’amato and Jesse Helms, and others of lesser note, expressed outrage that Serrano had received two grants totalling $20,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). These senators, with backing from other conservative groups, launched an all out attack on the arts by trying to get rid of the image entirely as well as looking to cut the NEA’s funding. Serrano stayed strong, still showing the image even after it was heavily damaged in 2011, but the attacks continued crippling the NEA and drastically cutting their funding, starting a chain of fluctuation in government art funding over the last 30 years.
This wasn’t 400 years ago, it was barely 30 years ago and in the modern era of art. Sure there was a time when the church, or any religion depending on region, dominated society and, in turn, the money so they got to decide what art got made. But that wasn’t the case anymore; galleries, private collectors, independent sales and so much more had long allowed artists to create careers without abiding by a religious rule. Even further than that, the post WWII era of abstraction and revolution in art had caused the industry of salons to collapse upon itself (their own doing, but that’s for another day), so there was no longer any industry deciding what art was good or bad. Art had become a free flowing entity, if it wasn’t successful in one place, or to one person, it would be in another setting. But now all of a sudden people in power are coming after the arts because an image that was created violated their values, but that shouldn’t matter! There’s no industry to decide what art is good, or what art is bad anymore, if you don’t like it then don’t look at it. There’s a lot of merit to Serrano’s work and the NEA deemed it worthy of support. If a gallery didn’t like the work, they wouldn’t have to show it. If a grant committee didn’t like the work, then they wouldn’t have funded it. If a seller didn’t like the work, then they wouldn’t have bought it. If you don’t like it or it goes against your morals, then don’t look at it. It’s so disheartening that people in positions of power, who are supposed to be informed and intelligent, would be so backwards as to hurt the funding of arts because something they didn’t like got paid for.
I strongly believe in the idea that art is a conversation and if everyone’s opinion is unanimous, then it’s not a very good conversation. Controversy drives art, if someone hates a piece then I think that’s just as valuable as someone loving it because that means people are talking about the work, having that conversation. But people need to understand how vast art is, if you hate a piece then that’s ok, but you don’t get to decide what is art or what is good, no one does. You might hate Piss Christ but there are people who love it, and I’m sure there’s art that you love that those people hate. We need to understand that there’s always going to be art that we dislike or that goes against our values in the world, but our opinion is never unanimous or valuable enough that we get to decide the art shouldn’t exist. In my opinion, Serrano created a striking image that’s also thought provoking and people recognized that and felt that he should be compensated for his work and be allowed to continue to create. But then people got upset because he depicted a religious figure and attacked him and, perhaps more importantly, the NEA which then lost a lot of funding and took opportunity away from other artists. If we’re going to say, “anything can be art,” then we have to let anything be art, get our heads out of our own asses, and accept that just because we don’t like something doesn’t mean it doesn’t get to exist.
I’m going to look into several more cases like this and lead it into a conversation about social media’s subtle and biased censoring of art today. Art censorship isn’t always a black bar covering a nipple, it can be extremely subtle but cripple an artist’s career and opportunity. If you’re more interested in this topic, I strongly suggest looking up the piece and reading some of the other articles about it, as well as about when it has been displayed. Other artists funded by the NEA that were met with controversy include Barbara DeGenevieve, Robert Mapplethrope and the performances of the NEA Four. All cases are interesting, worth looking into, and talk about great artists, but I find the Piss Christ image and resulting controversy to be the most fascinating.