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David and Art - Twenty Years, Ten Years, and Today

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Whether the target is art or something else, censorship seems to always have a political audience.

Ten years ago this month, I took part in a symposium at the old Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC on the “culture wars” and free speech. The occasion then was the 20th anniversary of the director of the Contemporary Art Center of Cincinnati being put on trial for obscenity when his institution mounted an exhibit of the work of renowned photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The whole affair caught fire in the U.S. Senate and wound up nearly killing the National Endowment for the Arts.

Even with my feeble math skills, I realize that that earlier episode has now been 30 years in the past. As Longfellow said, “Hardly a man is now alive / Who remembers that famous day and year.” But perhaps there are some.

Many of the speakers at this symposium were artists, arts activists, or curators, some of whom had recently been involved in yet another controversy. You may remember. It was December 2010, and there was a single piece in an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery that was said by some to be blasphemous and an assault on Christianity. A couple of organizations began complaining loudly and immediately a small group of Congressmen pounced, basically threatening to cut the Smithsonian’s funding if the piece wasn’t removed.

Well, the head of the Smithsonian Institution knuckled under immediately and ordered the piece taken down. This, it was widely agreed by the arts community, was a form of censorship and there were calls for his resignation.

An underlying message of the symposium was that things hadn’t changed much in 20 years, and the arts were still the target of political figures who sought to control what the public could and couldn’t see. While the Smithsonian controversy never reached the level of public attention and outrage of the fight 20 years before, many artists and museum curators nevertheless saw it as a serious threat.

Reviewing the ten-year-old notes I took while I was sitting up on stage: “Censorship is a cancer,” said one of the panelists, by which he meant that when unchecked it tends to grow and spread. We discussed the role of art museums in American culture and agreed that ideally, museums ought to display serious work and then let informed opinion help the individual reach his or her own judgment. The main problem with this, I said, was that there was profound lack of informed opinion on artistic matters that can be controversial.

In the decade since that symposium, it seems that all that has changed is the target. The energy of such censorship these days seems to have moved to the topic of history now and how it’s taught. Now it’s teachers instead of artists who are being called subversives. The arts are out of the crosshairs. At least at the moment.

David Smith, host of David and Art, is an American historian with broad interests in his field. He’s been at Baylor University since 2002 teaching classes in American history, military history, and cultural history. For eight years he wrote an arts and culture column for the Waco Tribune-Herald, and his writings on history, art, and culture have appeared in other newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to the Dallas Morning News.