January 4, 2014, by Stephen Mumford


John Stuart Mill’s view of liberty was largely right, especially where it concerned freedom of speech and expression. We ought to have nothing to fear from the public airing of views with which we disagree, for instance, for that exposes their stupidity. Besides, suppression of opposing views is rightly taken to be a mark of tyranny. This can be a complicated issue, though. Holocaust denial is illegal in some countries and the historical reasons are understandable.

When it comes to freedom of expression in the arts, we can similarly consider whether someone’s work should ever be suppressed or, as we more often call it, censored. There are different cases where this occurs. Art is often used to deliver a political message and governments fear the power this can hold. Through that fear, Pussy Riot were jailed for singing a song and Hitler banned paintings he considered degenerate or Jewish. Mill’s diagnosis holds true here.

Another kind of case is a little less clear-cut, namely where art is censored on grounds of taste and decency. Perhaps there is an argument here. There may be some things in the arts that require a certain maturity in the eye of the perceiver. We can understand a need for film classifications, for instance, as it could be harmful to a child to be exposed too soon to certain things, such as realistic violence. And I doubt it would be a good idea to take my 8-year old to a Gilbert and George exhibition (though I think he’d find most of their work very funny).

Perhaps there are some exceptions, then. Nevertheless, the default position is that the individual ought to be allowed to decide what they want and don’t want to view. This is especially important given that one of the functions of art is to question conventional ways of thinking, including our thinking about morality and representation, and challenging us to see things anew. Art has always made us query those very standards of taste and decency that are sometimes used as the excuse for its censorship. Our moral development can sometimes be driven by the novelty we encounter in confrontational works. Art by Robert Mapplethorpe, Peter Fendi and Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde are great works even though some might be offended by them.

Occasionally an artist deliberately produces provocative art in bad taste and causes offence. It might shock us and that’s not always enough to make it good. There is much bad art and plenty a misplaced assault on our sensibilities. But even here we should defend the artist’s right to produce shocking work just as we should defend an opponent’s right to espouse their politics. After all, many great artists have had their work condemned at first. These things sometimes need a historical perspective before we can pass final judgement. If we censor now, we could be losing some of the great art of the future.

Posted in Art HistoryCensorshipHistoryPhilosophyPhotographyPolitics