Censoring the Senses.

February 24, 2010

One of my favorite examples of censorship was shown in 1998’s “Pleasantville”, a film in which Toby McGuire and Reese Witherspoon are sucked from the present day into their television and tossed into a 1950s sitcom community.  By bringing their present day mentality with them, they slowly convert this black-and-white world into color bit by bit.  The owner of the local diner, Bill (played by Jeff Daniels), is a passionate painter but can only paint in shades of gray.  When Bud (McGuire) beings to show Bill the finer things in the art world, like works by Monet and Van Gogh, Bill’s paints turn from black and white to color.  After painting a portrait of his girl-that-got-away, Betty (Joan Allen), he ends up painting a nude portrait of her right onto the soda shop’s windows.  In public view of all of Pleasantville’s conservative inhabitants.

The first to see it is a paperboy who crashes his bike as a result.  Next a disapproving group of men and women who shake their heads in disgust.  Soon after there is a mob of angry citizens who sneer at the window and voice their opinions.  All it takes is one fiery jock to toss a rock into the window for the crowd to cheer.  Upon this rewarding reception, another young man throws a rock and more cheers erupt.  Then the crowd parts and a sidewalk bench is allowed through, ultimately destroying the window and the nude.  Not until the innards of the soda shop are completely destroyed, including all of Bill’s other works of art, does the crowd disperse.

The destruction of art is censorship at its most extreme, but this scene is an example of what can happen when something that is deemed taboo is showcased for the entire world to see.  To the citizens of Pleasantville, the nude painting of Betty was nothing but vulgar and disgusting.  In their world, art had no place, so the only clear way to react was to rise against.  A defense mechanism for all humans is opposition in the face of the unexplained.  If something doesn’t make sense to us, then there must be something wrong with it.  We are never the inferior one.

Currently at the Center for the Arts, there is an exhibit called “Nekkid”.   According to the website the description is this:

“Nekkid” asks artists and viewers to delve into their comfort/discomfort with symbols, emotions or clichés in the use of the human figure in art. The invited artists and writers have been asked to explore the theme of the body by focusing on specific body parts through their medium of choice.

What is interesting about this exhibit is that the focus on specific body parts is very vague.  Most pieces are full nudes, or partial nudes.  From what I saw, only one or two pieces were about a certain body part (both of which were genitalia).  In addition to this exhibit there was an open discussion last week on the topic of censoring the arts.  The panel was comprised of an actor, an artist, a writer and a moderator.  What should have been a discussion about the exhibit around them turned into tangents that went whirling off topic.  Soon the discussion went into sex with children, blow jobs on Times Square, gangster rap and the like.  “Should anything be censored?” one patron asked.  “No,” replied two panelists.  Oof…

My good friend Matt I. and I had a discussion on Monday night to further our understanding of the exhibit itself and the theme of censorship.  The exhibit clear purpose was to put people out of their comfort zone.  Shock value.  Matt and I discussed where the line is drawn between shock value and pure vulgarity.  What we agreed on was that all art is very personal.  It’s a form of expression that starts with a relationship between the artist and a subject or idea, that is then put on canvas or paper or another medium, only to be shared with others.  There is always some form of meaning behind something that is created by an artist or writer, or filmmaker, etc.  Whether that meaning translates to another individual, and what that individual thinks of the piece is where censorship can begin.

When something like a nude portrait is showcased, the intent is usually to translate the beauty of the human body using the tools of drawing and painting, or even photography.  Many may understand that beauty and understand the intent of its artist, but others may see nothing more than nipples and genitalia.  Beauty is gone, but sex remains.  Suddenly we tap into vulgarity and the work is no longer anything resembling art.  It’s disgusting and crude and should not be hung on a wall.  Gasp!

Kids could see it.  My grandmother would kill me if she caught me looking at this.  My belief system does not condone this.

When it’s stripped down, censorship is the act of shielding something from someone else.  Obviously censorship will always remain, whether it be in film or in the newspapers or news channels.  So the question I wanted to ask the panel was this:  Who gets to censor?  Not who should, but who gets to?  The argument is that parents should shield their children from seeing/reading/hearing things that they’re too young to experience, but what if a child is an orphan?  Or what if the parents aren’t the type to restrict their kids from learning their own way of the world?

The act of censorship has evolved over time as our culture becomes more and more accustomed to things that people like the Pleasantville folk saw unfit for society.  What we have to ask ourselves as individuals is, What do we consider to be art?  Is it a photograph of a glorious sunset?  Is it the blue-tinted petals of a wildflower?  Is it a black and white drawing of a boy on a dock?  Is it a white canvass splattered with multicolored paints?  Could it even be the image of a nude man with his arms above his head?  Or even the image of an eight-year-old girl at the beach with no swimsuit?

We will all have our own tastes.  Our own personal opinions about right and wrong, what is accepted and what is not.  But the most fascinating thing is that art, above all things, is the instigator.  Art challenges us to rethink what we already know.  Art tells us how an artist perceives the world.  Art is both public and utterly personal.  Art has the ability to change us, and that is why art matters.  It is the most important form of expression.  When something is censored, then we are blocked from making our own deductions about right and wrong.  So are our learned minds practicing personal censorship?  And if so, will the society let us be our own censors?

I could talk about this subject until the next full moon (Sunday?), but I think I’ve said what I need to.  I urge you to check out the “Nekkid” exhibit and see what you think.  It’s on display until March 31st.



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