Defining Censorship Down (and Up and Down and Up)

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As reported previously at the CFR, the National Coalition Against Censorship, together with the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at the New School and the School of Visual Arts, held two panels in recent weeks coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the decency clause, the 1990 law requiring that the National Endowment for the Arts weigh “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public” before determining its grants. Under a general rubric (“How Obscene Is This: The Decency Clause Turns 20“), each panel was a drill-down: “Survival vs. Autonomy: Public Funding of the Arts, Free Speech and Self-Censorship” on Sept. 15; “Decency, Respect and Community Standards: What Offends Us Now?” on Sept. 22. Grit TV’s Laura Flanders moderated each event.

For my money (actually, the events were free), the star of the first panel was Bill Ivey, former NEA head under President Clinton and now director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University. Ivey has a knack for articulating ideas that set the creative community buzzing; his book, How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights, is a sharp critique of our nation’s cultural moment. His presentation explained the genesis of the decency clause, a law reviled by many the left and some on the right (libertarians, you know). It also contextualized the overused expression “culture wars” so those who weren’t bathed in the battles could grasp where the lines were drawn.

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For someone renowned for futuristic thinking, I found Ivey not so much provocative as wise, which was a change-up. The flame-thrower role was quickly filled by Beka Economopoulos, co-founder/director of Not An Alternative, which “curates and produces work that leverages the tools of advertising, architecture, exhibit design, branding and public relations so as to affect popular understanding of events, symbols and history.” Fascinating, even if I don’t completely understand (or buy into) what that means. She does have about five jobs, though, so I don’t blame her for claiming not to sleep.

I do know Economopoulos enjoys a tussle. At first, she was nearly sisterly with a fellow panelist, Nato Thompson, chief curator of Creative Time, which “commissions, produces and presents groundbreaking art with the belief that artists’ temporary interventions,” but that didn’t last long; where Thompson’s views on art — what art is, what art means and who may be considered an artist — were expansive, Economopoulos was less willing to take a populist stance. In time, it seemed she was opposing Thompson point for point whatever the topic or subtopic, which turned several moments of the panel into a blazing example of unintended performance art. Fortunately, there were two additional panelists with longer views in the Ivey mode: Magdalena Sawon, co-owner and co-director of New York City’s Postmasters Gallery and Martha Wilson, founding director of the Franklin Furnace Archive.

While the first panel’s discussion inevitably returned to the current state of the NEA and then to the larger question of public arts funding in general, the intersection of the arts and censorship was harder to pin down and it often required some serious probing on Flanders’ part to stay on point. Flanders was fond of being conspiratorial regarding the right’s opposition to public funding; twice, I think, she paraphrased Martin Niemoller’s famous poem “First they came…” by saying “First they came for the artists, then they came for everyone else.”

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The funny thing was, for Economopolous, the legacy of the “culture wars” as a right-wing bludgeon wasn’t raw — for a moment, it seemed it wasn’t terribly on her radar. Was there a presumption about the impact of the “decency law” that didn’t comport with 2010? When the name of the late Sen. Jesse Helms was mentioned, “Who?” was Economopolous’ response. It was fully in jest to be sure, but in its own snarky way it underscored the generational shift at hand — and also how deeply the scars of the culture wars do run. Still, there is a “completely different media and cultural climate,” Economopolous declared, more or less daring her artistic elders to live in the past or be condemned to wait for it to be repeated. Well, none of this quite sat well with Thompson. He echoed the old lefty vibe when he said that there is, in fact, censorship in the arts “based on the aesthetic dispositions of the ruling class.” Later, with great aplomb, he took a swipe at “progressive publications” for putting their arts sections “way in the back.” That is, if you still read print.

(I did ask Ivey, during the public Q&A, to elaborate on his idea of a cultural EPA and I appreciate his forthright answer. More here.)

The second panel was even more challenging to focus than the first. As a practical matter, asking what offends us now is tantamount to being bound, gagged and forced to endure The Situation on Dancing With the Stars. What’s underneath the question of what offends us now is an acknowledgment of the idea that 20 years ago, when the decency clause was enacted, it was indeed “a different media and cultural climate” — a much smaller one. Asking what offends us is all about the definition of “us” — in the age of the Internet, I would argue that it is no longer an “us” at all; it’s “you.” What offends you now?

I’m not sure any of the panelists necessarily got to the heart of this matter. They included politically minded Iraq-born multidisciplinary artist Waffa Bilal; Holly Hughes — famously one of the “NEA 4” and currently an associate professor at the University of Michigan; artist, writer and “experimental geographer” Trevor Paglen; and body-/gender-obsessed multidisciplinary artist Carolee Schneeman.

However, there were some great quotes to be had on a variety of topics, and they’re worth some publication in this post. For example, Hughes has often rankled the left with her performance pieces as much as the right. But, she said, that while she wanted to question the “changing assumptions and conventional wisdom of the left,” the experience of being one of the NEA 4 — “being targeted by the government” — is different. That said, if the topic of the panel was about what offends us now, Hughes seemed more attuned to what the first panel examined: the role and appropriateness of public arts funding and there Schneeman concurred. If her earliest work was all about “the politics of the body,” it was the politics of appropriations in the late 1960s and early 1970s that allowed her legendary film pieces, exploring the body and sensuality, to be made.

Bilal, of course, operates without (or largely without) government support; his pieces sport such a high confrontational vibe — “Virtual Jihadi,” anyone? — that I’m personally amazed he hasn’t been relegated to a CIA black site yet.

Maybe the fact that I wrote that line tells us something about what offends us today. Something to consider.

One last thought about these events — next time, could they be live streamed?

, as Economopolous said,