Do we apply a double standard in censoring Art? Is there a difference between a Rubens classical painting and Playboy? Most of us think so. Yet some of Ruben’s art is probably more graphic than a Playboy centerfold and his Rape of the Daughters certainly shows violence toward women. Nevertheless, most museums and libraries would have no hesitation in displaying it in a public venue. What then makes the old masters art different from artists who create in the here and now? Should paintings showing nudity, graphic violence like rape, sexual themes or nude statues be shown in a public setting such as a Library, Mall or even an art show at which children are welcomed?
Does it make a difference who is going to be looking at or reading controversial material? Yes, it does. Just as a person isn’t allowed to scream “fire!” in a crowded area for fear of causing panic, as a society we will always need to make judgments as to what is appropriate for our public libraries and other non-profits to display and spend their money on. And yes, in the past governments havebeen very heavy handed on what was considered appropriate. On that subject, the right of Private adult individuals to decide what they will read and see must always be defended. The internet has virtually ensured that the freedom to view and read whatever we want will be protected; As long as it exists, artists and book publishers will be permitted to sell these items (in the appropriate venues), and I don’t think we need to be too worried about government imposed censorship.
Public galleries and non-profits have also felt the bite of censorship because of shrinking donations; private and for-profit galleries and bookstores are also under pressure not to carry controversial materials. A mom shopping with her 10 year old simply isn’t going to make a purchase in a gallery or art show that carries nudes because she isn’t likely to take her child into that gallery or to that art show in the first place.
As a visual artist who sets up art displays in public places, I am very aware of our American society’s standards of what is considered acceptable for public consumption. All societies have these standards of behavior and yes, the standards do evolve with society. 60 years ago, Tarzan of the Apes was considered too sexy for the libraries! What is acceptable in Europe is quite different than what is acceptable in America also. American standards are usually much more conservative than those prevalent in Europe. In this financially strapped time, Libraries and other non-profits and public venues are very dependent on donations. Let’s face it; donors are simply not going to come out and see or purchase art or books they don’t like and they won’t give money to organizations that support these things.
As to exactly why we think a painting over 100 years old is less controversial than one painted this year, well, all I can say is that history seems to cover a multitude of sins.