Censorship debate reignited as banned works go on show in American galleries

Display featuring 45 controversial artists takes on added resonance in wake of Charlie Hebdo attacks

The censorship of art is back up for discussion after the terrorist attacks at the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo in January. In New York this month, censorship is the focus of an exhibition that will display 65 works by 45 artists who have previously been banned for political reasons.

“It is high time to have a show where we can reflect on censorship in its different forms,” says Jennifer Tyburczy, who has organised “Irreverent: a Celebration of Censorship” at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art (13 February-19 April).

Among the pieces in the exhibition are photographs from Andres Serrano’s series “A History of Sex”, which were vandalised by neo-fascists in Sweden in 2010, and art by the photographer Zanele Muholi, whose Cape Town apartment was ransacked in 2012. Her work often deals with homosexuality, a contentious issue in South Africa.

Conservative outrage

Tyburczy began to work on the show in the aftermath of a controversy over the 2010 exhibition “Hide/Seek” at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC (see box). “Hide/Seek” examined gender and sexuality in art and drew fire from conservatives. A Republican congressman, Eric Cantor, called the exhibition an “outrageous use of taxpayers’ money”. (The museum is a part of the Smithsonian Institution, which is run by the government.) A film by David Wojnarowicz, A Fire in My Belly, 1996-97, was withdrawn without the curators being consulted.

“The idea that we were living in a post-cultural-wars America was really debunked at that moment,” Tyburczy says, referring to the US “culture wars” of the 1980s and 1990s. These peaked when Rudy Giuliani, the then-mayor of New York, threatened to pull funding from the Brooklyn Museum for including Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996, in the exhibition “Sensation”. The work caused uproar for its use of elephant dung beside the Virgin.

Incidents like these are common, although they seldom become public, says Jonathan David Katz, the co-curator of “Hide/Seek”. “Rarely does anything rise to the level of what we can call active censorship. Most of the time, it takes place in meetings with boards of directors, so that it becomes passive censorship. The public never hears about that.”

Unresolved issues

“It’s not surprising that issues around art censorship haven’t yet been resolved, because they haven’t yet been resolved in the general political sphere,” says Alexandra Schwartz, the curator of “Come as You Are: Art of the 1990s”, which opens at the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey this month (8 February-17 May). Her exhibition, which focuses partly on the emergence of identity politics in the 1990s, touches on similar issues to the Leslie-Lohman show.

There is reason for optimism, however. “The good news is that, in the US, censorship often backfires,” says Jeff Cohen, the founder of the media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. “It brings more attention to the work being suppressed and people often turn out to see what the controversy is about.”

Shows like those at the Leslie-Lohman Museum bring these issues to the forefront, he says. “You never minimise censorship by turning the other cheek. You only minimise it by resisting it."

Zanele Muholi’s Being, 2007. The artist’s pictures of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) South Africans give visibility to an under-represented population. Although the images are often tender, there has been a backlash in her home country, where homosexuality is frowned upon. “If anything happens to me, I will know that I have done something positive,” she said in January 2012. Three months later, burglars stole photography and video archives from Muholi’s apartment while she was away.

Alma López’s Our Lady, 1999. This digital print sparked protests when it was shown at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe in 2001. The piece, which depicts a scantily clad Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, led the Catholic archbishop Michael Sheehan to stage prayer vigils demanding its removal. The museum also received letters of complaint from state legislators in New Mexico and from the office of the state’s governor. When the show subsequently travelled, the work was removed.

Reactions expose lingering prejudice

An exhibition looking at how the Aids crisis changed art production is due to open in the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s West Hollywood branch this year. “Art, Aids, America” (6 June-30 August) is co-organised by Rock Hushka, a curator at the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington state, and Jonathan David Katz, the co-curator of the 2010 exhibition “Hide/Seek”.

That show, which opened at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, caused a row after conservatives objected to the inclusion of a film by David Wojnarowicz. A Fire in My Belly, 1986-87 (above, still image), included images of Christ covered in ants.

Katz thought that the notoriety of “Hide/Seek” would make it easier to find a home for his latest show. But “it was actually a lot harder”, he says. “We went to almost 100 museums.” Four accepted the show. One museum administrator told Katz that it would be a “downer”. Another said that no one wanted to see an exhibition exploring such issues. “There is still widespread fear of anything connected to Aids,” Katz says.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Censorship debate reignited as banned works go on show'