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New culture war takes root in US as major news outlet censors art

Artists say they are under pressure to tone down their work after Associated Press removes images of controversial pieces

New York

The Associated Press (AP) appears to have removed images by artists including Chris Ofili and Andres Serrano from its website, after right-wing bloggers called it hypocritical for pixelating Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in its coverage of January’s terrorist attacks in Paris but also selling images that some Christians might find offensive.

The company’s actions are symptomatic of what some artists see as a growing capitulation to special interest groups. “We live in an age when one critic, one writer, one blogger, can strike fear into the hearts of corporations,” says the artist Andres Serrano, whose work Piss Christ, 1987, was removed from AP. “It’s not fear of violence they’re worried about, but the fear of losing money.”

Some worry about a return to the political correctness of the 1990s, when former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration sued to evict the Brooklyn Museum in 1999 for showing Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996, which portrays a black Virgin Mary spattered with elephant dung.

The fact that the work caused little sensation when it was included in Ofili’s first US retrospective, which closed in January at the New Museum in New York, suggested that those days were gone. But the conservative blog Breitbart published a post in January about AP selling “a painting of the Virgin Mary decorated with elephant faeces”, and now, only an installation shot, rather than a close-up, is available. It is not clear whether this was the same work in the Breitbart post (that link now leads to an error message).

AP did not respond to requests for confirmation regarding Ofili’s painting, but in a statement about its removal of Serrano’s work, a spokeswoman for AP said in January: “It’s been our policy for years that we refrain from [selling] deliberately provocative images. It is fair to say that we have revised and reviewed our policies since 1989”—the year the firm uploaded the image of Serrano’s piece.

Meanwhile, artists are increasingly feeling pressure to tone down their work for fear that they “will be silenced in other ways”, says the artist Karen Finley. She was denied a grant by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990, after conservative columnists found one of her performances, which involved smearing chocolate on her naked body, obscene. Since then, she has faced “institutions that wouldn’t necessarily support me… collectors not collecting. All of these are invisible ways of silencing people,” she says.

Grey areas under the law

The US has some of the strongest protections of free speech. France forbids insulting others based on their race, religion or gender, while Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act means that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons might have been illegal, according to Tim Wilson, the country’s human rights commissioner.

According to the First Amendment, all Americans have the right to freedom of expression and freedom of religion. Legal restrictions of artistic expression should occur only “when art, or any form of expression, threatens to kill you. It’s very simple,” said the art historian Simon Schama at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York last month.

This is not so simple in practice, however, partly because of an exception in US law made for images that incite imminent violence. What this means is open to interpretation; last December, President Barack Obama’s administration filed a legal brief defending its decision to withhold thousands of photographs of tortured prisoners in US detention centres, arguing that their release could “intensify existing resentment and emotional fervour” among terrorist groups. Yet on the same day, Obama described Sony’s initial decision not to release the film “The Interview” as “a mistake”, despite threats of retribution from North Korea’s government.

Such grey areas have led to a discussion among artists about the responsibility they bear for the images they create. “The law can’t tend to every matter,” said the artist Sharon Hayes at MoMA. Finley is anti-censorship but says artists should be aware that “humour can be very painful, so it’s important to look at who’s making the jokes and who’s not”.

Others say that the only responsibility artists have is to themselves. Of Piss Christ, which sparked death threats and vandalism in the late 1980s and 1990s, Serrano says: “I’m a Christian; my conscience is clear.”