Crews of chisel-bearing operatives were hired to hammer out the auspicious image of Lenin — symbolically gripping the hands of an African-American and a Russian soldier and workers — from a mural prominently displayed on the main floor of the newly constructed Rockefeller Center in 1934. A similar scene repeated itself as recently as 2010, when the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art commissioned an artist for a public mural, only to deface it before its completion. Depicting coffins of war covered by dollar bills instead of flags, Blu’s work — like Diego Rivera’s sympathetic images of communism — was judged to be inappropriate for the American public.
Although many have claimed that art has little or no real political force, what these examples appear to suggest is that the powers-that-be disagree. The very act of censorship implies, or so it would seem, that the censors resolutely believe in the political and social power of the arts. If they did not, why would they bother to police what people can see, hear and touch? Does not the very existence of censorship prove, in reverse so to speak, that art is a sociopolitical force to be reckoned with? In other words, if censorship exists, isn’t it because aesthetics is perceived — at least by those in power — as a very real threat to the social and political order?
Raising these types of questions requires parting ways with a dominant paradigm for thinking the politics of art, which consists in concentrating solely on the motivations of artists and the potential impact of their work. Interpreters often draw up balance sheets weighing the objectives imbued in an artwork (or the politics supposedly inherent in the aesthetic artifact itself) against its ultimate consequences. Such an approach lends itself to bivalent assessments of success or failure, thereby allowing one to reach the conclusion that a particular form of political art is preferable.
The issue of censorship invites us to take a different angle. Instead of relying on a product-centered approach and a linear, instrumentalist logic of means and ends, it encourages us to examine the complexities of aesthetic production as part of a larger force field. Art is never made in a vacuum, and aesthetic immaculate conception is as mythological as other such forms. Creation always takes place through a process of negotiating various constraints and limitations. “We do what we can,” the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard was fond of claiming, “not what we want.”
Censorship is a particularly palpable restriction that can draw attention to the other limits operative in aesthetic production. It can function at the level of preproduction to impinge upon what is actually allowed to be created or persist as a work of art. It has the power of making non-art — meaning that which is not permitted to attain the status of art — by prohibiting, destroying or excluding certain creations.
Non-art is an important site of politics. It reveals, to begin with, the political orientation of the establishment, which seeks to control not only what is produced, but also what circulates and is received by the general populace. All three of these dimensions are essential to understanding the social politicity of aesthetic practices, meaning the diverse political aspects of their inscription in an expansive social force field of creation, distribution and interpretation.
If non-art is a nodal point of political and social struggle, it is also because of what we might call the censorship short-circuit. Explicit prohibitions often serve to paradoxically guarantee the renown and prominence of whatever is banned. Not unlike the erotic attraction of the forbidden fruit, which was so incisively analyzed by Georges Bataille, proscription runs the risk of both heightening curiosity and fostering fascination. The fame of the infamous can, in certain instances, bring flocks to the forbidden. The sensation around the public display of Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde (1866), since being bequeathed by Jacques Lacan’s estate to the Musée d’Orsay, is a case in point. This highly realistic close-up of a reclining vulva, which Lacan and his wife Sylvia Bataille had obfuscated behind a sliding wooden door painted by André Masson, was rarely seen in public and knew a shadowy existence prior to 1995. It has since been notoriously censored by Facebook.
If the politics of censorship can at least partially backfire by drawing greater attention to whatever is explicitly suppressed — such as in the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly” from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in 2010, or even the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie — this is not necessarily the case for other types of repression. Soft or indirect censorship is a form of discrete coercion that uses discouragement — often of extreme sorts — rather than prohibition, surely in order to avoid censorship short circuits. Self-suppression is another type, which occurs through acts of conscious or unconscious deference to the sensibilities of authorities. Over time it can evolve into an impalpable bowdlerization that passes itself off as common sense. Corporate-censorship-by-drowning is a particularly insidious and widespread form because it is, strictly speaking, a censorship without censors. A ‘market-based solution’ to the paradoxes of overt prohibition, it embraces so-called free expression and free speech as long as these take place within the confines of a high-volume and high-speed entertainment industry that is completely dominated by corporate monoculture. Its mantra is: ‘create whatever you want, and we will drown it in a sea of profuse and prominent mediocrity!’
Rivera’s original mural, of which only dust and a few stolen photographs remain, was presciently and verbosely entitled “Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future.” Rockefeller resolved this crossroads by choosing corporate power over anti-fascist art, paradoxically contributing to the prominence of Rivera’s message and work, which was immediately exalted in E.B. White’s trenchant poem “I Paint What I See.” The titan of the Mexican Mural Movement derided the spawn of Standard Oil in a radio interview by asking the following rhetorical question, regarding an imaginary scenario in which an American millionaire purchased Michelangelo’s most well-known work: “Would that millionaire have the right to destroy the Sistine Chapel?” The choice of examples could not have been more germane since Michelangelo’s work was famously censored by proponents of the Catholic faith, who insisted on having loincloths added to this celestial cornucopia of burgeoning concupiscence, brimming with genitalia and buttocks. Rivera, who later remade his mural in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, surely knew that art is always produced in an intricate force field and that censorship is the malevolent recognition that aesthetics can be a dangerous social and political threat.