THOUGHTS ON CENSORSHIP
As I am a supposedly educated person who has been exposed to some of this world's most famous and controversial thinkers, it appears to me I should have some thoughts on the subject of CENSORSHIP.
Libertarian opponents of censorship maintain that no one should tell them what to think about anything. As these opponents are adults, they inconsistently claim that they should censor what their children read or see on Television. They also reprove their children for butchering the English language. Such foes of external censorship criticize those parents who do not supervise the reading and viewing habits of their children. Since these lackadaisical parents do not direct their children's attention into wholesome paths, Church, State, vigilance committees and militias step in to impose forms of thought-control that are more mind-warping than any parents could envision.
On the face of it, objecting to censorship is praiseworthy. Grand Inquisitors are not wanted in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. This is a country founded on difference. Our national motto is "E pluribus unum, " . . . "the many one." This is like saying "the more the merrier."
Among thinkers I read in college, the Greek philosopher Socrates stands out. He was an old, ugly man, henpecked by his wife It is said that he fancied young men. Whether this fancy meant that he was sexually deviant is debatable. People in his time did not think in such terms. Loving young men was a custom and, I suspect, no one -- unless it be the young men -- objected to it. Socrates enjoyed asking questions even more than he liked virile men. He wasn't always clear about the answers, but the questions kept coming.
Eventually, officials in Athens in charge of maintaining public order began to worry. Socrates was undermining the State. He was encouraging disobedience. He scoffed at the Gods. He may have been an ATHEIST! The upshot was Socrates was condemned to commit suicide by drinking hemlock. He went willingly to his death. Before he died he spoke to his young pupils and through them to the Statesmen of Athens and to posterity. Plato, one of Socrates' pupils, took down his words.
Known as the Apologia, Socrates' defense of human liberty and of free thought is one of the great writings of all times. I rate it up there with the Sermon on the Mount by Jesus Christ, John Donne's Devotion Upon Emergent Occasions, No. 6, which contains the phrases "No man is an island" and "For whom the bell tolls," and Milton's defense of free inquiry called Aereopagitica.
It strikes me that the people I have cited looked on truth as an absolute. Jesus summoned people to a narrowly focused version, which obliged them to follow rigid codes of belief and to love and care for one another. He was tolerant of backsliders. but vengeful toward those who would not acknowledge that he alone was the way to eternal life.
John Donne thought Christians were part of the Mystical Body of Christ. Since there is exclusiveness in this thought, it could lead to unpleasant consequences for believers in a Unitarian as distinct from a Trinitarian God.
As a Protestant, Milton thought everyone should read the Word of God and make up his or her own mind. (How different from Emily Dickinson's playful God of woods. birds and bees!) Like Jesus and Donne, Milton was hostile to those who make up their minds differently. Yet he had faith in reason. God would not desert those who reason correctly as long as what they believed came from within, not from without.
I agree more with Socrates than with Jesus, Donne or Milton. Then again, I am a Unitarian-Universalist. The Universalist part of this hyphen is a church begun in Gloucester, Massachusetts by the Reverend John Murray. He believed that a loving God would not condemn people to hell, regardless of how bad they were in life. No matter how much evildoers enjoyed themselves in this life, Protestants and Catholics were sure God would punish them later. How sweet is revenge!
Since Socrates liked to ask questions. I, too, would ask, "Is censorship ever justified?" "Would I want certain acts or thoughts or words censored?" I think I would. Like Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, I think no one should be allowed to yell FIRE! in a crowded theater. Unless, of course, there is a fire. I would then ask, are there similar situations when the same rule might apply? If an orator rouses illiterate people to violence by preying on their fears or by appealing to greed, and these same people, acting with the courage of a mob, commit rape, arson and murder, would I condone the orator's right to say whatever he wishes? I am not sure. Nazi gangsters were condemned to die at Nuremberg for results that came about because what they said was taken literally by people who had surrendered their ability to think for themselves. (Are not those people who yell for their team at football and baseball games also members of a mindless mob?)
If there is such a thing as JUSTICE, the maxim "As you sow so shall you reap" means something. Society has every right to punish those who promote genocide, racial hatred and religious bigotry. Opponents of censorship will probably ask, "But where does the process end?" Once the snowball starts rolling, it gets bigger and bigger and pretty soon everybody -- except the select few -- gets crushed.
Personally, I don't approve of GRAFFITI. Graffiti is what happens when people write disturbing and taunting words and slogans, and symbols of peremptory ownership on private or public property. It is common in Southern California and on the New York City subway. These days writers talk about "political correctness." For me to say that most of the Graffiti in Southern California is written by Mexican-Americans is "politically incorrect." I think it is true, but, if I say so, I am called a racist! So the fear of what others may call me compels me to "censor" my thoughts.
Teachers of Mexican-American studies in California universities defend GRAFFITI as a form of ARTand of individual expression. Since I find it offensive, I am insensitive to its beauty. This is NONSENSE! Graffiti is an assault on other people's property by ignorant and angry teenagers handicapped by poverty and by mental ineptitude. Some are on their way to becoming criminals.
I advocate harsh measures for GRAFFITI. It's easy to say parents should pay, but parents don't have money or they are not there. In a Muslim country - which this is not - the penalty would be the loss of the hand that scribbled the obscenity. If a mosque was defiled, the offender would be stoned to death. I can't bring myself to go that far. I haven't yet found a method that would get inside the heads of graffiti scribblers and change the way they think. I lean toward public ridicule . . . a return to the stocks of Puritan times. Perhaps the problem is insoluble and law-abiding citizens will have to spend part of their time grimacing at the damage egotistical, and thoughtless young people have inflicted on the public domain.
There are conservative groups and fundamentalist sects who would like to "censor" Robert Mapplethorpe's and Andres Serrano's photographs. There is arresting beauty in Mapplethorpe's photographs of flowers and a curvilinear play of lights and shadows in his male torsos that testify to Mapplethorpe's skills at transforming and heightening reality. His photographs have erotic meaning. Pistils and stamens look like male and female genitalia. Unlike the flower paintings of Georgia O'Keefe, the emphasis is on the male phallus, not on the female vulva. Some of Mapplethorpe's photographs depict nude males in dreamlike states ... a result, perhaps, of drug-induced torpor. As such, they lack the zest of Etruscan and Greek portrayals of lively men intent on fornication or the hormonal joy of 13th-century monks in Carl Orff's Carmina Burana.
As for Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ", a crucifix suspended in urine, it is a gimmicky and not-so-original exploitation of childhood Catholicism, not that different from parodies of Catholicism that Madonna, the popular singer, likes to indulge in. One of Madonna's favorite ploys is to dance and sing before a statue of Jesus or of a saint while offering parts of her body and simulating masturbation. Serrano followed "Piss Christ" with a urine-submerged profile portrait of Pope John-Paul. Is the next derring-do a cross up the rectum? Or (thanks to Mapplethorpe) is that image by now a worn-out cliche?
Some critics have seen in Serrano's undermining of a faith he abandoned at age 13, an inverse kind of religious sentiment. I think it more likely that Serrano has found, as poets have before him, that the rich world of Catholic art and imagery is there for the picking. By juxtaposing ready-made sacred and profane images, second-rate poets and artists need not go to the trouble of inventing personal metaphors and language about the contradictory realities of contemporary experience.
One can make the argument that the sacred and the profane are intertwined . . . that the Virgin Mary belongs in a brothel, that Jesus was in love with Mary Magdalene, or that the apostle John was a homosexual. Certainly some tormented people are caught in a prolonged and agonizing tussle in which sacred and profane elements -- usually desires for sex, alcohol or drugs and fear of them-- are forever at war. I can read books by such people or look at their art with appreciation. ( The 17-century poet John Donne, whom I have cited, the Greek novelist Kazantzakis, the Russian novelist Dostoyevsky, and the English painter Francis Bacon are such people.) I am not sure the same is true of Andres Serrano. Is he not, like people who sprawl Graffiti on walls, trying to call attention to his paltry self? Are we supposed to admire Caliban?
I do not believe in CENSORSHIP. It is my right to accept or to reject what I see and read as my reason or feeling dictates. This is John Milton's position. The more different viewpoints are allowed to circulate, the greater the chance that the weaker or most despicable of these viewpoints will be rejected, and the best allowed to flourish. It's like a garden full of weeds. Perhaps, those weeds that survive will be of greater benefit to men and women than those that perish. This is a wish, not a certainty.
It is not a question of censoring Mapplethorpe and Serrano. It is a question of public money. Should federal, state and local governments commission and exhibit works by these artists and by others when these works affront the values of tax-paying Americans? Should artists who paint caricatures of Jews and people who write that the Holocaust was a lie or who say that AIDS is God's retribution for sin be subsidized by taxpayers?
Mapplethorpe is definitely homoerotic. I enjoy his work as I also like the homoerotic poems of Walt Whitman and Hart Crane and the homoerotic undertones in the novels of D. H. Lawrence. As this is my personal choice, I cannot work up a deep lather if Senator Jesse Helms or Pat Robertson don't agree with me. It might be possible for me to develop a morbid liking for Andres Serrano, though I don't dote over urine. Whether it's good for their mental outlook or not, some people like to read the death-haunted fantasies of Edgar Allan Poe or the hallucinations of William Burroughs. American Skinheads are not usually classified as artists, but they do write and they do talk. They invent bogeymen and they teach people to hate. I do not advocate putting people in jail because I think their beliefs detestable. Up to now, Mapplethorpe, Serrano, Poe, Burroughs and Skinheads have not been censored. They are free to continue doing what they have done. On the other hand, taxpayers should not be compelled to support their work or their explicit messages.
Art critics have a role to play in assessing the value of a writer's or an artist's output. No reputable critic in the United States advocates clerical or government censorship. Critics are aware of the fallibility of human judgment, including their own. A check of magazines and newspapers indicates that Mapplethorpe has fared well and Serrano less so with the critics. Critics tell people what to think. That is what they are paid for; that is why people read them. To suggest that because critics are censors, they should be disregarded, is stupidity. A critic is a professional with trained insights. These insights can intensify or diminish the onlookers enjoyment of works of art. Ultimately onlookers must put the criticism aside and do some independent evaluation on their own.
If the negative opinions of the critics and the negative reactions of the public are sustained, one-hundred years from now, Mapplethorpe and Serrano will disappear from art and history books. They will not even be footnotes. Works of great art, like the discoveries of science, endure no matter how often and in how many places governments and guardians of morality try to suppress them. The cumulative judgment of critics and people is, in the long run, the only verdict that means anything. History will always have a place for Socrates, Jesus, John Donne and John Milton because critics and readers have decided that these people knew how to put into shining words reflections dealing with the aspirations and setbacks, the joys and tragedies of being. Their uplifting words, like shafts of light, penetrate through fogs of confusion and depression and sink into the heart. The disturbing, rebellious and sometimes self-destructive side of man will also survive in the nightmarish visions of Hieronymous Bosch, Francisco Goya and Jose Clemente Orozco, or in the blazing and triumphant pages of Dante, Shakespeare, Melville and Dostoyevsky. Let time judge the depth and validity of Mapplethorpe's erotic fantasies and Serrano's juvenile desecrations.
Meanwhile, let us not go overboard in congratulating those who shout expletives at the dinner table.
April 4, 1995