Recently, a contributor sent us an email stating that he had lost his job because he had shared the story he wrote with a coworker, which led to a complaint and his termination due to a violation of his contracted code of conduct. While I’m not here to argue the semantics of a contract I haven’t seen, I do think, first and foremost, that this is certainly abhorrent in an age defined by alleged enlightenment and freethinking. It also raises some curious questions about censorship in the digital age.
The United States has had a bizarre history with censorship dating back to its inception. I’m sure Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, known deists, would be the first to advocate the necessity of a censor-free society. These iconic American minds were, however, not bogged down by strict Protestant dogma that would easily deter them from say the image of a naked woman. But as I am a Christian writer who delights in the perverse and the provocative, I cannot bring myself to rest these laurels entirely on the shoulders of faith. While I concede that the Abrahamic faiths are amongst the most influential powers of Western society, I wonder then how I am able to differentiate art from artist, or faith from faithless, American from Unamerican.
The thing is: Art is. As an act of creation, it can simply exist in a natural world. As such, it is impossible for a single piece of art to change the deep-standing morals given to us by faith or by law. There is a divinity to art, and I dare say, even in its most perverse. In 1987, there was an uproar when Andres Serrano photographed a crucifix submerged in his own urine. The technical merits of this art notwithstanding, it did ask us then, much as Janet Jackson’s nipple in 2004 or anything coming out of Miley Cyrus these days does now: Where does art cease being art? Where do we draw the line? Since art just is, it never ceases being once it has become. But it’s the latter question that holds the most weight: Where do WE draw the line?
Art is a two-way street, the point of conjecture between artist and audience. I kind of think of it as a revolving door with the audience on one side going into the artist’s world and the artist on the other going out to communicate with them. Art is the great communion of these people, but art is bound by movement. This communion cannot occur unless both artist and audience are moved. Therefore, art that doesn’t provoke movement, either emotionally, spiritually or whatever, is no more art than a blank canvas on a whitewashed wall. Sorry, Thomas Kincaid (unless the American pastoral somehow gets your juices flowing– in which case, more power to you). Going back to Serrano, his Piss Christ did exactly what art should do; it provoked, it stirred, it infuriated, it challenged. It was a moment where the audience could have stepped through that revolving door to meet the real Serrano, but instead chose to hang him for it.
There is, at the end of the day, a responsibility inherent to art. The artist of course is responsible for the medium through which he/she chooses to express himself/herself, but more importantly there is a responsibility on the part of the audience as well. The audience has the responsibility to respond to these provocations with the same care as the artist did to make them. Images of sexuality do no more to corrupt youth into having sex than all those crazy hormones they were born with do. And it’s here where the potential for issues arise. The audience has the right to absolve their responsibility, but not at the expense of destroying or restricting art or the artist.
Censorship is born out of this lacking responsibility, or, rather, the refusal of it. It is out of fear of understanding, a highly xenophobic guttural response to something they’re not interested in figuring out for themselves. And it is a slippery slope from banning nipples on the internet to burning books in Nuremburg. It’s at it’s worst when government or private organizations get involved. These organizations are, by their constructs, incapable of a realized morality that comes in conflict with the art or artist. Instead, what we get is an implied morality, which is the imposition of the morality of those in power, which is often accompanied with horrifying enforcement. Because this morality is implied, there is no way art can combat it when the two clash. Art is defeated by the very entity that so much art attempts to dissolve.
So what are we, as artists, supposed to do when faced with such debilitating odds? The only thing we can do: Art onward, outward, inward. We must continue to push the boundaries of expectation and censorship. We must challenge normality by delving into the abnormal, the perverse, all that stuff that is uncomfortable to discuss in mixed company or impolite to discuss at the dinner table. That’s not to say riddle the internet with fart jokes and vulgarity, but not shying away from it when the art calls for it. Saint Thomas Aquinas once said, “If thou must sin, sin boldly.” So don’t be afraid to create. Don’t be afraid to move or be moved. That’s all part of the process. If we concede to censorship, we allow the piece of humanity we are trying to uncover through art to be lost. It is essential to our existence to provoke and to be provoked. Anything short of that, I dare say, is incorrigibly inhuman, the antithesis of all that we are or may yet become. And to our friend and contributor, keep writing. Don’t let the narrow-minded Man keep you down. You did your job as an artist, and we, your loyal readers, would expect nothing less.