Controversy over the role of censorship in the arts


By: Brittany McDaniel, News Editor

Professor Kristin Hahn led the third installment of the Great Issue Lecture Series with her presentation, Censorship in the Arts, Wednesday, Oct. 27 in the RSC Lecture Hall.

Hahn began her lecture with a quiz to attendees, providing questions that forged into discussions concerning how literature and the arts are censored in today’s society.

Hahn gave examples of banned and challenged books, some of which, by modern standards, are classics. The widely read “Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain stirred up controversy with its use of racial slurs. “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald caused concern with the use of language and sexual references. According to a database from the American Library Association, the groups most often challenging books are parents. Their main basis for the challenge is sexually explicit text.

So when is censorship of a work appropriate, and when does it constitutional rights like freedom of speech? Hahn walked the audience through some examples.

In 2005, the children’s book “King and King” was placed in the adult section of the Oklahoma Metropolitan Library System because aspects of homosexuality in the book were deemed inappropriate for younger readers. The complaint came from a parent who was not happy the book was accessible to her child. The library system restricted access of that book, and in doing so, controlled who was allowed to read it.

In the realm of art, success of a work is based on highly valued opinions. Critics say what is worth looking at and what is not. However, art critics are not the only ones interested in giving opinions about art. In 1987, the Andres Serrano photograph “Piss Christ” sparked controversy around the world. The photo depicted a crucifix emerged in a jar of urine. The photographic image of the art does not appear to be obscene, yet the process in which Serrano created his artwork was, for many, a source of outrage. Several US senators called for a halt of government grants issued to help fund his art.

Censorship does not necessarily mean taking down art based on fundamental differences. In the case of Australian artist Bill Henson, the basis for censorship was protection. In 2008, Henson placed several photos on display at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney, Australia. Many of the photos on display showed children posing nude. One in question exhibited a nude 13-year-old female. Miranda Devine, an Australian columnist, wrote about the photos in an editorial, describing them as an example of the “over sexing” of children. Henson faced charges that were eventually dropped after a careful review of his work.

Despite personal opinion, censorship has proved itself to be a useful in restricting and controlling public access to questionable works. The fact remains that censorship is alive and kicking, whether or not the basic principles are supported or opposed. The question to ask is when does censorship go to far and where does it not go far enough.

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