A selected history of selective history

Andrew David King
August 22, 2012
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For the past few weeks I’ve been reading John McPhee’s 1994 book The Ransom of Russian Art, a slim work of immersion journalism that recounts the adventures of Norton Dodge, an economics professor who salvaged massive amounts of dissident artwork from the Soviet Union in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The situations that burdened these subversive artists weren’t resigned, as one might expect, to their art-making activities; fear and mistrust ran like parallel currents through most of their daily lives. The censorship was brutal and the repercussions for disobedience were even more so. Which is to say that the environment for artists in the United States today is, of course, quaint in comparison: censorship, if it happens at all, happens largely due to the pressure of organizations (religious, political, etc.) ostensibly separate from the government. This doesn’t mean that the relationship between art and the government, or art and the public, is less flimsy—only that its specifics have become more difficult to track.

Globalization and new communication technologies have allowed for more people to congregate where they want to congregate, whether in person or online, and so censorship-producing encounters have reduced in some countries; pluralism has given way to Balkanization. One might say that we’ve given up these smaller clashes over aesthetics and public imagery only at the cost of a colossal clash later on—when one group reaches critical mass and a primitive I-stay-here, you-stay-there rationale is no longer a possibility. But I don’t want to relativize so much as to even compare American societal pressures with KGB coercion, as the latter is certainly not the former (anyone doubtful of that should read McPhee’s book, or read about the recent plight of the Russian punk protest band Pussy Riot). But it does make sense to me to not take the current artistic climate for granted. Particular presidential candidates are already talking about cutting funding for public broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. And while it would be easy to make a partisan claim about who censors what and why as if this were an immediately diagnosable and treatable thing, the archive proves a far more prickly and zigzagging path.

Nothing demonstrated this more resoundingly for me than Jane Clapp’s 1972 annotated bibliography, Art Censorship: A Chronology of Proscribed and Prescribed Art. In it, Clapp compiles hundreds upon hundreds of anecdotes, testimonials, references, and recollections that record every variety of art-related suppression, from the homegrown to the state-mandated. (One might infer, due to the small scale of some of the events, that for every citation at least ten similar instances went un-cited.) Beyond the book’s more obvious function as a sort of crime blotter, it also inadvertently serves as a barometer for how more metaphysical ideas about representation, presentation, and artistic purpose have progressed—or regressed. My demeanor while reading the entries switched from amusement to fury and back to amusement, but more than anything I felt befuddled: I don’t know how else to explain the sort of muted, incoherent shock some of these Orwellian events prompted.

I was able, however, to pull out several recurring themes in censorship—themes that might guide a cursory attempt to map out some of the more tenuous episodes in humanity’s relationship with art. To read through Clapp’s bibliography is a chilling lesson in the constant upkeep required to ensure the harassment-free existences of artists and their artworks. Even more chilling, though, is the idea that so much of this knowledge about censorship has been forgotten, or is being forgotten; even more dangerous than the censorship of art is the censorship of art that wears sheep’s clothing, that refuses to call itself what it is. I don’t have any good answers for how to prevent censorship, but I do think that once it becomes invisible—once it becomes “slick,” as a friend of mine said, referencing the way in which government and media foul play can become seamlessly embedded in its presentation—any chance that was had becomes lost. This slickness is increasingly the case with social media companies, whose purposefully vague policies on content allow them to exclude whatever they find distasteful or even, as is likelier, commercially competitive; users who’ve agreed to these policies in exchange for a free service have no legal recourse. The point is not to avoid these services (I certainly use them) but to remember that they are not—in any sense, no matter how much room-temperature PR they pump into the air supply—intellectually public.

I found my copy of Art Censorship on a giveaway cart outside of a local bookstore in Berkeley, one step away from the recycling bin. Before it ends up there, as it inevitably will, somebody else has to find a way to keep these episodes not just in the annals of universities but in the public consciousness. This might sound alarmist to some, but I’d direct those individuals to the list below. “There is more than one way to burn a book,” Ray Bradbury wrote in his 1979 Coda to Fahrenheit 451. “And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” What follows is a brief sampling of annotations from Clapp’s book, categorized by cyclical tendencies I’ve noticed—and distinct, in each instance, for their bizarreness. (Each is only superficially separate, of course; the impulse to remove opinions one doesn’t like seems, sadly, to be a universal one.)

The indecent

  • “Madonna of the Serpent” by Caravaggio, formally called “Madonna and Child with St. Anne (Dei Palafrenieri),” was taken down from one of the smaller altars in the Vatican Basilica because it was deemed that the Virgin and Christ Child were not depicted in a morally acceptable fashion.
  • The bridges of the Swiss architect Robert Maillart, built from 1917 to 1940, consisted of such “lightness and elegance” contrary to the prevailing aesthetic of the day that they perturbed both practicing engineers and citizens. Clapp notes that they were relegated to rural valleys in the Alps because of this.
  • The May 27, 2917 edition of the Code of Canon Law approved by the Catholic Church under Pope Benedict XV specified that the clergy had an obligation to ensure that artists’ constructions of “robes, furniture, and other articles of churchly use” conformed “to liturgical description.”
  • In the 1930s, the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts was attacked by groups complaining about female nudity in the works it exhibited.
  • A copy of Garth Williams’s successful children’s book The Rabbits’ Wedding was moved from the Reserve section of Montgomery’s public library in 1959 on account of its purported integrationist propaganda: in one scene from the book, two rabbits—one white, one black—are shown holding each other while others dance around them in a field.
  • Also in 1959, Long Island art shop owner Eva Lee was forced to move a $6,000 sculpture of a nude, reclining couple out of public view after receiving phone calls from residents who threatened to damage it otherwise.
  • Fireman were asked to remove the poison ivy that a statue of the “Venus de Milo” at a park in Winona Lake, Indiana, bore—apparently planted by a woman wishing to cover the nudity of the figure.

Caravaggio’s “Madonna and Child with St. Anne (Dei Palafrenieri)”

The political

  • English exiles, aiming to incite rebellion in England under Cromwell, smuggled Holland-published playing cards with images of Charles II’s decapitation on them, among other events. Any person found with the cards could receive a death sentence.
  • During the French Revolution, in 1793, the Council of the Commune of Thiers—a town renowned for making paper and cards—published a notice on the political origins of symbols on playing cards, banning some insignia that were indicative of “our ancient slavery”: “The former [decks] show fleurs-de-lys, scepters, crowns. The Republican should reject such emblems.”
  • On July 4 of the same year, every French academy of art was abolished except for the Commune des Arts, which proclaimed itself “a free and democratic artists’ association without special groups, classes, and privileged members.”
  • Some San Franciscan artists in 1930 objected to Diego Rivera’s receipt of a commission to paint a mural for the New York Stock Exchange Building—his Communist affiliations, they argued, should have prevented him from securing the commission.
  • A sampling of the United States Customs guidelines from the same year offers insight into that department’s discombobulated priorities: Clapp cites research stating that “at least half” of the 740 books on the list of banned texts were written in Spanish. Additionally, some books were permitted in French, but not in Spanish; still others were permitted in French, but not in English.
  • In 1959, two Arizona men were indicted for publishing and distributing a political cartoon linking Barry Goldwater with Josef Stalin. An investigator from the United States Senate Elections Committee visited Phoenix to adjudicate, but concluded that Goldwater’s campaign manager, Stephen Shadegg, had made “the only widespread distribution of the cartoon.”
  • An oil painting selected by Communist China in 1965 to be shown on the back cover of the party magazine China Youth was discovered to display Chinese characters that read “Long Live Chiang Kai-shek” and “Kill Communism” disguised as entwined branches of cotton plants.

The religious

  • Circa 445-452, the persecution of Buddhism in China resulted in the destruction of sculptures and paintings housed in the “cave-temples” of the cliffs at Tun-huang along the Silk Road.
  • In the 16th century, the “sacro-pictorial code of Interian de Ayala” dictated the specifics of religious paintings by which Spanish artists were expected to abide under threat of the Inquisition. When painting the Madonna, her feet could not be exposed; when painting the cross in a crucifixion scene, the apparatus was required to be construed as “precisely fifteen feet by eight,” the timber cut flat, and four nails—not three—included. Anything else was heresy.
  • Throughout the Protestant Reformation, Catholic icons and other religious artifacts were burned and destroyed including almost all “pictures of Christ and the Saints in Greek Orthodox Churches…”
  • The English Parliament issued an order on July 23, 1645 that any pictures that showed “The Second Person of the Trinity,” “God the Father,” “the Virgin Mary,” and “the Holy Ghost” were to be seized and burned.
  • At the time Clapp published Art Censorship, a case being brought against John Sassone of Pennsylvania for “the summary offense of blasphemy” was as yet unresolved. Sassone had allegedly displayed a picture of Christ that bore the words, “Wanted for sedition, criminal anarchy, vagrancy, and conspiring to overthrow the established government…” among others.

Tony Rosenthal’s The Family Group

The materially questionable, or “not art”

  • On February 24, 1965, United States Customs decreed that the term “original” may only be applied to the first ten castings of a sculpture.
  • The Russian artist Ilya Glazunov was deemed a “student who had the conceit to declare himself a newly discovered genius and organize a personal show” after he exhibited works at the Central House of Art Workers in Moscow that bypassed the guidelines on permissible art in the USSR.
  • Tony Rosenthal’s 1,000-pound bronze and brass sculpture “The Family Group,” which had been placed in front of the new Police Facilities Building in Los Angeles in 1955, was called a “metallic monstrosity” by Leo Friedlander of the National Sculpture Society. City Councilman Harold Harby said, “This shameless, soulless, faceless, raceless monstrosity will live in infamy… probably the most scandalous satire and caricature of the American people I have ever seen.” Critics called for the statue to be melted, but these efforts were defeated.
  • In 1928, the case Brancusi v. United States was concluded in favor of artist Constantin Brancusi, whose metal “Birds of Space” was initially taxed at 40 percent of its value as a “manufacture of metal” and not a work of art. Brancusi’s victory served as a major precedent for similar legal cases that would follow, including Ebeling & Reuss Co. v. United States in 1958—a case that was decided in favor of the Swedish Dr. Lindstrand, whose utilitarian vases were deemed works of art after the centrality of artistic intent in their creation was demonstrated to the court.
  • Czech artist L. Krejc’s work was classified as art after a New York inspector for the United States Customs Bureau deemed it not art, and therefore subject to duties, in 1965.
  • In August 1969, regulations set forth by the Customs Bureau were adjusted to allow works of fine art in at no rate, or at lower rates, while “expert opinion” was consulted on the matter.
  • In 1965, the Director of the National Gallery of Canada advised the Canadian Customs office to rule that sculptures by Andy Warhol—constructed of tin cans and grocery cartons—were not “original sculpture,” and therefore liable for “merchandise duty.”

Not all of the above-cited instances constitute censorship in its most odious, insidious forms—but they do demonstrate the volatile delineations surrounding not only what counts as art but what falls under the jurisdiction of legislation. Some of these censors weren’t tied to any formal institution, either, demonstrating that a healthy artistic biosphere has as much to do with cultural zeitgeist as with what gets inscribed in law. And though the phenomenon of book burning isn’t as common in the 21st century as it may have been in the century that preceded it, the spirit behind the flames isn’t anomalous, even to this modern age. And much of the resistance to what now seems standard or even innovative was put forth by those who deemed themselves protectors of a sort—of an art, or of an idea of an ideal art. “One of the most striking signs of the decay of art is the intermixing of different genres,” wrote Goethe in the introduction to his Propylaea in 1798. But there’s likewise always been a healthy dose of rebellion to counteract these self-appointed guardians, as Ben Franklin demonstrated when he wrote his “Apology for Printers” in The Pennsylvania Gazette in May of 1731 after being “censur’d and condemn’d by different Persons for printing Things which they say ought not to be printed…” The plurality of opinions he observed posed no problem to morality, or the preservation of high art, or the public good—but was instead a fact of human existence. The first point he raises in the document reminds his critics to consider that “the Opinions of Men are almost as various as their Faces,” an antidote to any singular vision that threatens to overtake all others.

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