And why it matters
Up until the year 2020, the Modern Age seemed pretty mundane. I really had no reason to question the inner workings of any system that governed my life (or the lives of my family and friends). Enter 2020. It seems there was nothing spared in the wake of changes made by the events of this year. Relationships strained, housing and safety questioned, health at risk, and least expected was the dynamic between art and culture evidenced by the censorship of an entire segment of an exhibition titled “Holding the Moment” at the San Jose International Airport. A show, I was, in fact a participant in.
There is no doubt whatsoever that art can be provocative. In all its forms- song lyrics, poetry, painting, sculpture, throughout time, art has pushed the boundaries of what the society of the time and place would call “acceptable”. What do I mean by acceptable? I mean that the general public can understand and palate it in a way that doesn’t offend or cause confusion to the beliefs and structures that uphold that society. Those with an elevated sense of understanding such as art critics or government officials have always held the keys to what art could be displayed and shown in public, or funded with public monies.
So what’s wrong with this picture? For one thing, it assumes that those in power (either in government or in the media) know “better” than the rest of us, and have the RIGHT to determine what is shown to us. That we, as members of the society have not the brains, or the education to examine, understand and choose for ourselves whether we accept the views expressed in the art as our own. It also assumes that our sensibilities are too delicate and may get offended by some kind of political, religious or social statement that displays a different worldview from ours. But most importantly (and probably most likely the cause of censorship throughout time) the artwork disrupts a power structure that those in power (or those who helped create said structure) are desperate to keep upheld.
What is it these people don’t want us to see? Well, throughout the history of art, there has been censorship of some type, whether because of morals, or rules of decency that society has tried to maintain, or to uphold certain religious beliefs, or because of political criticism of a particular group or person. Even long after works have been created- such as Picasso’s “Guernica”, they still remain a target for censorship. To use that work as an example, when it was created in 1937 as a response to the Nazi bombing of the Spanish/Basque town of Guernica, Picasso didn’t exhibit it in Spain, but kept it out of the hands of those in power he thought would not accept his criticism of their actions. It was received well by those he did exhibit it to. Then in 2003, a tapestry reproduction of the painting at the United Nations was covered up for a press conference prior to the bombing of Iraq. Coincidence? The imagery that was depicted remained as poignant as the day it was created, causing a decision to be made to censor it so it wouldn’t interfere with the story the military and government officials were trying to create.
This brings me to the impetus for writing this article: the censorship of a segment of an exhibition in 2020 in San Jose, California, USA. Not a foreign country run by a dictator, but rather the epicenter of free speech and creative thinking. During its tenure on display at the San Jose Mineta International Airport, as part of a group exhibit titled “Holding the Moment”, a piece entitled “Americana” was the cause of distress among airport staff, police officers and some members of the public. As an artist who was juried into the same show by a panel of Bay Area artists and professionals, I feel a sense of concern that their decision was over-ridden, post jurying, and after opportunities for the public to view the works prior to display. It seems as though a process was adhered to during the initial phase of acceptance, and then completely disregarded once the works were exhibited at the airport. This concerns me because it shows that those in power, those with the authority to choose, display and remove the artworks that the public sees are operating under a structure that allows for changing the rules in the middle of the game.
The artwork, along with the rest of the segment of the exhibition (which was put up in phases) was officially taken down because it represented a possible interpretation of violence against police officers. There was, however, no public forum, no opportunity for the artist to address the concerns brought forth, and seemingly no repercussions to the future exhibits and work to be displayed. The other members of the exhibit were also not informed of the decision to prematurely de-install the show, and some were not afforded the opportunity to see their work installed at the airport according to the original timeline given.
If we are to be a civilized society that values freedom of speech and the assumption that all people can think for themselves, then what does this incident say about the future of such a society? Who is public art for? And who’s voices get to be heard? Who’s voices matter?