Washington Post Religion Blog: Why Do People Call It Censorship When the Government Suppresses Art?

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Jan. 6 2011 3:48 PM

Washington Post Religion Blog: Why Do People Call It Censorship When the Government Suppresses Art?

The Washington Post's online "On Faith" section is a hilarious and/or depressing project, whereby a secular, liberal newspaper tries to demonstrate its respect for religion by turning the subject over to a moderator who believes in the mystical power of labyrinths , so she can tee up discussions on the most inane God-related themes imaginable. Actual recent topics: " Should presidents have to make [a] profession of faith before swearing an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution? " and " Is Christmas Christian? "

(Confidential to Sally Quinn: 1. No . 2. Yes.)



Now "On Faith" has turned its attention to last month's decision by the Smithsonian to remove a work of video art by David Wojnarowicz after people who are professionally outraged by art decided to be outraged by it. Or decided to be outraged by the description of its contents, anyway. (Going and seeing art takes time!)

So the question from "On Faith" is "Is a society required to grant its artists the right to offend?" The answer, of course, is "no"—the right to offend is not recognized by any number of societies: military dictatorships, for starters, and fundamentalist theocracies, and honor-based tribal cultures. Maybe the question is supposed to be "Is our own society required to grant its artists the right to offend?" In which case, the answer would seemingly have to be "yes."

Unless, that is, you are "On Faith" contributor Patrick J. Deneen of Georgetown University. Well, Deneen does concede that artists have the right to offend. But society does not have to "acquiesce" to the offense. Post art critic Philip Kennicott and other people who accused the Smithsonian of censorship—for the act of removing an individual work of art from its show, because people claimed they found it offensive—are "sophistic and sophisticate critics," Deneen writes.

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The cries of "censorship" are designed to elicit immediate outrage, but they are severely misplaced - the word has been used so often, and so inaccurately, that we have forgotten what it means. "Censorship" occurs when a public entity represses or forestalls some form of expression. In this case (as in so many other similar instances) the government was not exercising "censorship"; it was not preventing the artist or the artwork from being created or displayed. Rather, the Smithsonian decided it had erred in giving space in its museum to this offensive artistic expression and decided to withdraw the exhibit from its space. This did not, nor does not, prevent this expression from being displayed in nearly an infinite number of other spaces (including the internet). The government did not censor - it exercised prudential judgment about the use of its facilities, just as the Post does everyday in what it decides to run and what it decides to leave off of its pages. Does a decision not to run a piece in place of an essay by Kennicott (or anyone else) amount to censorship? I think not.

So the antidote to sophisticated sophistry is...unsophisticated sophistry? A work of art is not being repressed or forestalled when you take it out of the gallery exhibition where it was being displayed, because—because why, again? Because someone can maybe still see it on the Internet? Though not any longer in the context of the exhibition for which the curators had selected it. (Hey, it's OK to

, after all—you can still find the word in the dictionary! Or actually, by extension, you can stop printing or circulating the book altogether, since it's widely—nearly infinitely!—

. )



And what about Deneen's final analogy or thought experiment? Setting aside the creepy wish-fulfillment of his example (in which he imagines the Post nonpublishing the Kennecott essay he disagrees with), we are supposed to judge whether or not a government entity is guilty of censorship by asking ourselves how we would feel if a privately owned newspaper did something similar. And how would we feel about applying the Voting Rights Act to an elm tree? Censorship is an abuse perpetrated by a

public entity

. Who said that? Oh, right, Deneen did, four sentences earlier. The government is not a privately owned newspaper. (And the

is not its editorial board.)


Tom Scocca is the managing editor of Deadspin and the author of Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future.