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Facing Up to Modern Censorship

From art to politics, writer Robert Atkins discusses new threats to freedom of expression.
 
 
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Just last month, the FCC leveled a record fine against more than 100 television stations. The $3.6 million penalty was based on the FCC's determination that programming violated "decency standards." The orders for the fines were in response to some 300,000 "consumer complaints" -- many of which were lodged by organized groups rather than individual viewers.

No matter where the complaints come from, the end result of such fines is the same: TV networks will shy away from any material that might be deemed objectionable and could therefore cost them money -- eventually trickling down to creators of programming who then self-censor in order to make their material more marketable.

The compulsion to avoid being objectionable has led to a false narrative in which offense is spoken of as an empirically understood term. Whether it's in the art world, publishing or politics, modern censorship has defined the parameters of what we are and are not willing to say.

It is these subtle and insidious forms of censorship that Robert Atkins and Svetlana Mintcheva explore in their new anthology, " Censoring Culture: Contemporary Threats to Free Expression." With writings from folks as varied as Lawrence Lessing and Judy Blume, the book articulates new challenges -- from corporate conglomerations to self-censorship -- impeding the freedom of expression.

Robert Atkins spoke with AlterNet to discuss why his work on the book has led him to see modern censorship as the problem of our times.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri: How did this book come about?

Robert Atkins: The book came from a series of public panel censorship discussions that my co-editor Svetlana and the artist Antonia Munta organized at the New School which were titled "Censorship in Camouflage." This was the starting point for the book. There was a great poverty of language. If you think about a term like, say, "gentrification," it describes a phenomenon that seems self-evident once we have the language to talk about it.

Our intention is to broaden the whole discussion about what censorship is, how it operates and who is a censor. We saw that artists were inhibited by so many phenomena, conditions, whether it was copyright laws or whether it was more stringent policing of the internet. We also realized these things were not limited exclusively to artists. Artists are often the canary in the coal mine.

OR: Is this a book about politics as much as it is about art?

RA: You can't have one without the other. Artists are both a reflection and a mirror of the social conditions around them -- which is why there is change in art. You couldn't have an artist like Andy Warhol critiquing consumer culture prior to the late-19th century. As an art historian, I believe that the arts are firmly embedded in their moment, and the possibilities for artists are totally tied to the social conditions around them. The idea that artists are visionaries ahead of their time is silly. When an artist's observations are acute, they may be there before anybody else, but they're limited by social and political phenomena.

OR: If artists are canaries in the mine, what are politicians?

RA: I think politicians are always the slowest to react -- it's the squeaky wheel theory. No politician will go out on a limb for anything unless he feels his constituency is affected. While I don't believe artists are visionaries -- it seems like much too strong a word for me -- it does seem that artists and politicians are at the opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to quick responsiveness.

OR: Can you discuss the standard perception of censors and censorship, and why it's inadequate to discuss the kind of censorship we currently face?

RA: We did informal surveys as we wrote introductions to the various parts of the book, and nobody thinks of themselves as a censor or self-censor. When in fact we censor ourselves all the time, often for logical reasons and to logical ends. Can you imagine if we all spoke our minds all the time? But these have become such nasty words in the language. When people think of a censor, they think of some bureaucrat in a former Soviet bloc country, sitting with a red pen, removing salacious references out of plays. We tend to think of censorship as an official action being done by governmental officials to limit speech. In the U.S., we have such a wall in some areas between public and private that many things that the government are held to, citizens and corporations are not. I think there's such a problem with the language.

Gov. Pataki recently spoke on the new World Trade Center development and the museum of freedom. The families of the victims of 9/11 made such a deep impression on him. They seem to have such powerful clout that art was being eliminated from the mix of cultural programming downtown. It was feared that artists might say something critical, or might offer some less than pious observations or commentaries about what the memorial was intended to commemorate. It's the same kind of holiness that used to surround the Holocaust. There's so many ways that people can be censored.

OR: Self-censorship is unique in that it can influence someone before they have expressed or created a thought.

RA: Yes -- the unborn expression. For instance, if some playwright feels like there is no possible audience for this work, he or she may not write it at all or the notion of the commercial viability of any kind of production is so deeply engrained that people's imaginations become inhibited, thinking first of what is possible rather than what needs to be expressed. This certainly is not good for the arts, and it certainly isn't good for democracy.

We have one of the most widespread and stringent set of laws regulating expression in terms of copyright that this keeps getting extended. If pop art were to have emerged today, it's very unlikely that it could even weather that first round of litigation. Any kind of intellectual property protection suggests that if you don't enforce your trademarks or your copyright, then the person who breaches that can point to that the next time around. So, people are encouraged to litigate.

OR: Why is this antiquated perception of censorship so entrenched in our minds?

RA: I think it's just denial. Our country's founding ideals and our methodology is all about freedom -- especially the First Amendment of the Constitution. And yet, the reality so often differs from the abstract principles. That's exactly what politicians and demagogues play on -- as if we have the perfect democracy.

I think the world, during the Gore-Bush election were so shocked to see that we really don't have this "one man, one vote" principle to which we pay lip service -- that someone could win and still receive a minority of the votes. This extends to so many areas of public life. We're trained on this idea that we have complete freedom of speech, freedom of press. Anyone who suggests that this isn't the case is looked upon traitorously. It's an ironic embodiment of the fact that we really haven't perfected those important goals.

OR: Is self-censorship on the rise?

RA: Absolutely. Some self-censorship is logical, but it becomes dangerous when organizations don't apply for National Endowment for the Arts grants because they think that they're not going to get them because their thinking is too radical or because there's the slightest bit of sexual content involved. I think self-censorship is very much on the rise, and it's a condition.

If you think back to communist East Germany, and the famous Stasi, the secret police that had people spying on their neighbors. When you make everybody a spy, then you, the government, don't really have to worry about this. You engrain the standards of appropriateness in people already. We see that here with the Christian right -- how quickly standards have changed about a reasonable interest in sex and sexuality.

OR: It's unsettling how an issue is framed in such extreme language that a more "moderate" approach to the issue is still often incredibly conservative.

RA:: Or even worse -- if you're a member of the House of Representatives, any sound bite suggesting that it's not a black and white situation is something you avoid at all costs. This is where legislators censor themselves. Reasonableness is just out the door. We see this particularly in reference to one of the mechanisms by which censors work, which is in the name of the alleged "protection" of children.

OR: There is a whole section of the book dedicated to a discussion of the evolution of litigation surrounding child pornography that was particularly interesting. Could you explain the relevance?

RA: Nothing exists outside of politics. There were no child pornography laws until the Reagan administration in 1982. Dr. Amy Adler writes in the book how the law is so vaguely written -- if an image might arouse a pedophile, then it should be considered child pornography. This included entirely clothed images, and it essentially instructed judges, jurors, prosecutors and defendants to imagine what a pedophile would be turned on by. This included things such as jeans that were too tight.

If you think about fashion photography, it's kind of a joke. Except, why these laws are so horrible in many ways is that this only applies to things in the publicly funded realm. So a Calvin Klein ad, which in many cases is more lascivious by these legal standards than is works by female photographers, is exempt. We have a chapter of memoirs by mothers and grandmothers -- professional photographers who were arrested because they photographed their children and grandchildren in the buff.

OR: In the past few years, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has engaged in some of the highest fining of television stations in history. FCC officials insist that only "obviously offensive" material is fined -- as though there is some empirical definition of what offends people.

RA: It's ironic how little fidelity there is to any particular point of view from most administrations. The Supreme Court has a three-prong law -- for something to be deemed pornography, it must pass three litmus tests. One of them is that it doesn't have any redeeming social or artistic value.

Another one has to do with community standards -- and this was a way it worked to conservatives' advantage to try to take internet purveyors of any kind of sexually related material to court in Louisville, Ky., rather than in San Francisco. This underlines the fact that community standards can be very different in different places. These terms are ridiculously vague. The idea that anyone would know what was patently offensive, or would not see that this was a subjective terminology really isn't awake.

OR: You mentioned the pressure on politicians to couch everything in black and white terms. Do you think this is what Americans want, or do you think they're more interested in some nuance?

RA: I think people are underestimated all the time and, when given real information, are really quite savvy. The problem is that unless something is so important, like Saddam Hussein and WMDs, it's difficult to get through the layers of deceit, exaggeration and hyperbole. I think, ultimately, people have common sense.

Some people might say that we Americans get the politicians we deserve. But whoever said that we get the best politicians we can buy is really much more on the mark. You and I don't have the clout that General Electric has, and it's no coincidence, particularly in the Bush administration, that legislators and lobbyists essentially write legislation. They're catered too so deeply.

OR: Is this a partisan issue?

RA: No. These sins are almost as egregious coming from the left as they are from the right. This isn't a Republican vs. Democratic issue at all. People are crazy at all points of the political spectrum. Diane Ravage was first a member of the first Bush administration and then the Clinton administration as an educator and specialist. She writes wonderfully in the book about how standardized testing has gone so far as to be an injunction against talking about mountains if the testing is being done in a state that doesn't have them. The policing of what people think kids should think about has gone to totally absurd lengths.

OR: Could you give and example of the growing influence of private and corporate funding of museums?

RA: Museums face this chronic shortage of funds. Many people think that it's the problem of museums -- they have a board of trustees that, whether public or private, are mostly very well to do. They in turn seem to have embraced the model of corporations that museums must continually grow in order to be good at all -- so they create a situation in which the resources needed to run a museum continually rises. If you add an extra wing, you need extra guards and curators.

The seeds of the problem may come from there, but federal funding and state funding has diminished so drastically that museums turn to other sources of funding. You can hardly bite the hand that feeds you. Phillipe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, pointed out to Newsweek in 1982 that corporate funding is tantamount to censorship. Yet, that museum is so large, and requires so much money to keep themselves operating. Like every other museum, it turns to corporate funders. and the recent show Chanel was almost totally funded by the House of Chanel.

This was a completely uncritical view -- a whitewashed celebration -- of Coco Chanel who appears to have a quite dubious past as someone who made her money during Vichy France buying properties that previously belonged to Jews. This isn't really a museums function. Museums are tax-exempt institutions; they're mandated to be educational. It's clearly a conflict of interest. This is the position museums find themselves in and not out of any evil motive. It's really the only way in this historical moment that they can operate when we have a government that funds the arts at less per capita than any other industrialized country.

OR: One of the results of this more behind the scenes corporate influence is that the public is often times unaware of what they aren't seeing. Can you give an example of this?

RA: Book publishing people used to laughingly refer to it as a gentleman's trade. The thinking was that small profit margins were okay and that the blockbuster books would fund the smaller books -- the ones that would contribute to our enlightenment. They might not have a huge audience, but they were important books to publish. Since the consolidation of the book industry, there are only a few very large international corporations that own the major publishers.

Random House, the biggest American publishing house, is owned by Bertelsmann, the German publisher. While publishing companies are still running on small profit margins, they're not funding important books. They're wasting that money in huge advances to people like the Clintons and the Colin Powells -- and many of those books are flops. Their money is also going to bloated corporate salaries so that their CEOs now make the equivalent of what Hollywood CEOs make. Yet, the profit margin stays just the same. There are just as many books being published, but there are many worthy books that don't get published. We're talking about books we don't see -- books that are critical.

OR: While there is a long history of protesting government, protesting corporations is a newer concept. What are some of the challenges in this?

RA: Corporations have a special legal status essentially on par with individuals. It's shocking to consider that. Wallace Kurault was an independent bookseller who took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. He was taking the major booksellers to task for wheedling huge discounts out of publishers who, in many cases, had no choice when dealing with the Barnes and Nobles of our times.

Kurault charged that this was monopoly practice. I can't imagine a more monopolistic practice or a less level playing field than when you can get goods for less than Joe Smith down the block -- you can demand them and receive them from publishers. Kurault was joined by many righteous litigants including the American Booksellers Association, but the court ruled in favor of the big money. In some ways, it's remarkable that we still have any independent booksellers given that.

I think that people begin to make choices about where they purchase things. Maybe you can get it a dollar cheaper down the block, but maybe that's not what you want to do given the power of our shopping dollars and the implicit support it shows for particular practices.

OR: Can you explain what the role of the media in depicting "culture wars"?

RA: The media plays an equally negative and positive role because conflict is what often drives it -- particularly in terms of television and moving images. One of the real points we want to make in this book is regarding the "culture war" controversy. The famous moments -- the shuttering of a play or the closing of the exhibition -- are really not the main event. There's a phenomenon that gets fueled by the media and by politicians because they can score points.

There was a huge controversy in New York about a show about the Holocaust at the Jewish Museum a couple of years ago. The show was contemporary art that was related to the Holocaust. In many ways it tried to create ambiguities, and to broaden the conversation from the black and white conversations that we have about the Holocaust as the most inherent of all evils to return it to its more sociopolitical conditions of the time.

The museum was very aware that it might be controversial and studied it with community groups. Curators brought their board into the discussion, and the board urged them to tackle the problems. They did a very intelligent exhibition that raised important issues. Their mistake was allowing the catalog to be published two months before the exhibition opened.

One of the tabloid presses owned by Rupert Murdoch, read the catalog and looked at the pictures. Of course, none of these people could imagine that a work of art might be different in person than it is on a printed page, and savaged the museum two months before the show opened and suggested that it was a celebration of Hitler.

This undoubtedly sold lots of newspapers and pressure on politicians came down on the side of the censors because of the pressure. One has to feel a little sorry for politicians who believe they never have any choices. I think we elect them to make choices. Essentially, it's another situation where the media and politicians are in cahoots. The more controversy the better, as long as you're on the "right" side of it.

OR: Given your experience and observation, what conditions enable an exhibit to reach a level at which it can be openly experienced and discussed?

RA: I think it takes great determination, courage and savvy from the museum powers that be. They have to say that it's more important to have this dialog than to not have it, which might be risky for a museum director. There was a recent case in New York with a play that had been quite successful and uneventfully presented in London called "My Name Is Rachel Corrie."

The New York Theatre Workshop decided to shut it down after they had committed themselves to it. It had been published in their calendar, and they were quite far along the way when they got an inkling that this might bother some people. They simply chose not to present it -- which to me seems like an enormous betrayal of their audience. It's this assumption that no one can handle it and that "we know best."

OR: Why do you think enabling these kinds of difficult discussions is so important?

Take the recent international incident about the Danish cartoons about Islam. It showed these cartoons that had versions of Islamic prophets, including Mohammed. This got drawn into this black-and-white situation where suddenly we had these supporters of freedom of the press taking an absolutist position and then you had people around the world manipulated into seeing this, not as expression of one person or a newspaper, but scapegoating it for representing the way the west looks at Islam.

If you say, "Let's have a conversation about this" early on, then people can handle it. It's clear to me that the process will determine the outcome of the situation. If you want to hide and obfuscate, and stand on a soapbox, you're going to elicit the exact same response from the other side.

OR: What did you learn in the process of putting together this book?

RA: This book began through the lens of the arts and imagining that artists really suffered more from these sorts of inhibitors. But, we came away feeling that this is part of the problem of our time. The book got bigger and bigger, and at one point, we had to eliminate everything that didn't impact on artists, which is pretty broad. What we essentially eliminated was a section on the censorship of scientific research and the attempted invalidation even of what science is.

We could have even made the case that this affects the arts. There's a great show about Darwin and the theory of evolution at the Museum of Natural History in New York. This was the first exhibition in their recent history for which they couldn't get corporate support. The right wing early on had raised the alarm. I think we really need to watch out for people who don't want to have these kinds of discussions. What is it that ought to be placed off limits remains the ultimate question and I would frankly say that I don't think anything should be.

What we need is more conversation, intelligence and nuanced viewpoints.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri is an assistant editor at AlterNet.