I gave a talk last night for a Continuing Studies' community forum on "Censorship and the Arts: Current Issues and Controversies". I was joined by Alain Pineau, the director of the Canadian Conference for the Arts, who gave an excellent survey of recent Canadian incidents of arts censorship, and Allan Antliff, of UVic's History in Art Department, who offered a visually engaging tour of "extra-judicial censorship" of protest art in Canada and especially the U.S.
I agreed to be a sort of agent provocateur for the evening and argue (perhaps against my best interests!) for arts censorship—or at least look at the issue from a slightly different perspective. It was a thoroughly engaging evening, especially the audience Q&A that followed. I figured I ought to post my notes before they get filed away. I believe Continuing Studies is planning to podcast the whole evening in the next week.
I wanted to begin my talk with a Zen riddle. It goes something like this: If an artist creates a work of art in the forest, and nobody is there who wants to censor it, does it really make a sound?
I ask this question only half jokingly.
When I was invited to join this forum on censorship and the arts, I thought I knew what I wanted to say. I’ve long been a hardcore Freedom of Speecher and an admirer of Americans’ first amendment rights. I figured I’d defend artists against the last redoubts of censorship in Canadian society—whether they be film boards or customs agents, human rights tribunals or even copyright lawmakers—those legal and bureaucratic obstacles to freedom of expression.
But that seemed a little too easy. And I’m hardly an expert on the topic. Instead I began to wonder why in the age of the Internet—when artists can create almost any type of cultural content and distribute it digitally and globally (unless perhaps you’re living in China and type the words “Falun Gong” or “democracy”). Why, in this borderless new world order, does censorship maintain such an iron grip on Canadian artists’ fears and imaginations, even as its influence shrivels in our daily lives and work?
That’s when I stumbled across the Introduction to a new anthology of creative writing from and about British Columbia. In it, an author describes meeting a famous Palestinian poet at a literary event. He writes: “[O]ne of the things that intrigued me about [the poet] was a rumour that he might be reduced to chopped liver by a Mossad hit squad at any time. I found it invigorating to think that I was sharing the planet with people who cared enough about poetry to shoot anybody over it.”
The author tries to picture this situation “in Canadian terms” and imagines Prime Minister Harper ordering the Canadian Forces to combat experimental poets who have “declared war on conventional imperialist grammar. I want our fighting men to spare no effort until this sinister challenge is stamped out to the last slash and hyphen!” Finally, the author throws up his hands and admits: “It didn’t quite click.”
It’s a funny passage, and it struck me for two reasons. One, the author uses the story about the Palestinian poet to argue that our own government doesn’t want to censor Canadian writers because it doesn’t need to—that “literature in industrialized society is elitist and contemptuous of common people,” so it poses little danger of inspiring citizen-readers to actions or attitudes that might upset the status quo. The same might be said for much of the arts.
Secondly, I detected a certain nostalgia for censorship—an envy of those artists in other nations who still threaten the powers that be, and are threatened in turn by the apparatus of state repression. A nostalgia for a time and a place when art really mattered.
By contrast, the only thing in Canadian culture retreating faster than the shadow of censorship is serious public discussion about the arts. Pick up a paper or turn on the TV, and if you’re lucky enough to stumble across coverage of the arts, it’s usually reduced to the form of a top-ten list or a dollar figure. Which movie opened to the biggest box office? Which painting set a new sales record at auction? Which author signed the biggest advance? Which contestant got voted off the latest reality-TV show?
It’s the great paradox of the Internet era. More people are publishing more stories and poems and memoirs, composing more music, producing more films, YouTubing more performances around the world—creating in unprecedented quantities. And yet who would argue that an appreciation or an understanding of the arts has increased with all this creation? That public discussion of culture has expanded rather than contracted?
That’s where this nostalgia comes from, I think. For most censors at least, art matters. Censors care enough to pay attention, to look beyond the price tag and sales figures to the possible meaning and impact of a work of art. Even if they only want to hide it away from the public eye. Even if they’re hunting for Satanic verses in song lyrics or spotting smut in the corners of an otherwise innocent canvas.
A decade or so ago, Canadian artists had to defend their creations more often against the censors, while public controversy focused on institutional acquisitions and exhibitions such as The Voice of Fire or The Flesh Dress. Then the debate was often (if not always) about “What is art?” rather than “Who’s number one?”
That nostalgia for such battles between artists and censors appeared again in the lead-up to the federal election. When Stephen Harper quietly tried to unplug a number of funding programs, artists across the country got red in the Facebook and the Internet lit up with charges of censorship. The Conservatives’ cultural cutbacks were a lot of things—underhanded, undemocratic, ideological, and, as it turned out, an act of political hari-kari in Quebec.
But to describe the elimination of travel grants or funding for digital projects as “censorship” probably seems odd from the international perspective of, say, an artist under house arrest in Burma, or a novelist with a fatwa against his life, or any creator whose computer has been confiscated or printing press smashed or gallery shuttered. Canadian artists are not the Champagne-swilling elites of the Conservative-sold stereotype. But our situation is more comfortable than our rhetoric often lets on. More comfortable, and yet also more compromised.
The truly “independent” artist in this country is perhaps more endangered than the polar bear. Few do their creative work untethered to the public purse strings. Almost all of us depend, in ways sometimes obvious and sometimes not, on the kindness of strangers—and by strangers, I mean taxpayers.
In a democratic society, how we spend public money should be up for debate: no taxation without representation, and all that. But amongst cultural observers, that debate tends to be framed in a narrative of imminent disaster and looming censorship. After top-ten lists, the most popular plotline used to discuss the arts is “The Sky is Falling”. Columnist Andrew Coyne has described such coverage as “a kind of ritual theatre in which the same lament is endlessly repeated: Canadian culture is dying, defeated, doomed, and all for the want of a few government dollars.” Any opinion to the contrary is intellectual heresy.
Eventually, however, that lament starts to fall on deaf ears.
Part of the problem may be the poverty of our language to describe subtle distinctions between interference and neglect. And part of the solution may be coming up with new words to do so.
I grew up Catholic, and while I’ve since fallen far from the tree, one thing Catholics know about is censorship. The Church turned censorship into its own “ritual theatre”, most infamously in what became known as the Index—which was the Oprah’s Book Club of the Inquisition. If your manuscript made the Index, it was bad news for you, but great news for your book—everybody wanted to read it on the sly.
Catholics are also very good at devising categories, especially when it comes to acting badly and paying penance for it. Catholic doctrine distinguishes between “mortal” and “venial” sins. Mortal sins are grave matters committed knowingly and deliberately—stuff that will get you sent to Hell. I think that censorship as it has been traditionally understood and practiced—as active interference by instruments of the State—is a mortal sin against freedom of expression.
Within the borders of our country, the fight against that mortal sin has largely been won, despite a few holdouts. No politician is keen to be caught sinning in this way. We saw the Conservatives retreat from Bill C-10, which would have allowed the government to revoke tax credits for film productions they didn’t like.
However, the silencing by a thousand cuts that artists in Canada feel they’re experiencing today, in which it’s not one artist or one work of art or even one artistic genre (like rap music or conceptual art) or one type of offensive subject matter that’s targeted, but rather individual threads removed from the greater fabric of cultural funding—that’s more of a venial sin.
Venial sins are less grave actions done without full knowledge of their ultimate consequences and often only semi-deliberately—and therefore they’re easier to commit and to forgive...a fact that can make them doubly dangerous, or at least especially hard to resist. “We’ve got nothing against the arts per se,” say politicians and bureaucrats. “We’re just balancing the budget.”
Maybe this venial sin deserves a new name, not censorship but censor-schism: a slow, subtle separation of Canadian artists from their accustomed means of patronage, of their ability to forge a living through creative practice. Artists still have the right to make art. They’re not harassed by legal and bureaucratic entities for their creativity. They’re just a little less able to afford to produce it or market it or distribute it or talk about it in any meaningful way.
Another way of thinking of it might be the famous distinction made by philosopher Isaiah Berlin between negative and positive liberty. Censorship is an assault on our negative liberty—on our freedom from interference and oppression. Censor-schism, on the other hand, affects our positive liberty—our freedom to live a certain way, to pursue our artistic goals and visions, to realize our full human and creative potential.
All my dithering about mortal versus venial sins, censorship versus censor-schism, freedom from and freedom to, might seem like hair-splitting. But I think it’s an important distinction. One that addresses the particular challenges of publicly funded Canadian artists during a political moment in which they can say and do almost anything—but shouldn’t expect anyone to pay for it, let alone pay attention.
Finally, I wanted to take a longer, more historical view of what could be described as the ecological relationship between the arts and censorship. The two impulses—to create and to repress—have always co-existed in the same cultural environment. It would be surprising, then, from a purely evolutionary perspective, if the censor and the artist hadn’t moved from predator and prey to some sort of uneasy accommodation. A symbiosis, you might say.
You can see some Canadian artists and aspiring censors settling into such a mutually beneficial relationship. It’s like the wolf and the sheepdog from the old Looney Tunes cartoon. If you remember, Ralph and Sam, as they’re known, are friends until they punch the clock and then they perform their conflicting duties with great gusto, before punching out again.
I’m not quite sure who is Ralph and who is Sam in the artists-versus-censors equation. However you cast them, they both need each other to sustain their identities—one as the guardian of public taste and social decency, the other as the rebel of Romantic myth willing to speak truth to power whatever the cost. Together, they have a social role to play. Separated, though, they are only two tiny voices shouted down by the barkers of the free market.
Again, we saw that complex relationship in the recent cutback controversy. First step: an artist—say, a rock band or a movie producer—chooses a name or a title or a topic designed to offend the easily offended, politicians, bureaucrats, and social conservatives of all sorts. Step two: the expected outrage ensues and angry calls are made, if not to censor the offending work, then at least to wonder loudly why it received public funding in the first place—a call for censor-schism, in other words.
Step three: Headlines are made, letters to the editor are written, Internet petitions are launched to lament about censorship and the death of Canadian culture. Finally, once the hubbub peaks and subsides, the two camps retreat to their corners to cool down. Sam and Ralph have performed their jobs—to offend and to be offended—and both may have gotten a brief moment of attention from the otherwise fickle eye of the media.
In Canada, getting censored—or nearly censored—can be a great marketing opportunity. In fact, it’s sometimes the only way for the question of “What is art?” to interrupt the superficial hype of the entertainment-industrial complex.
More historically—and perhaps less cynically—I think censorship has also played a role, not entirely negative, in the shaping of the artistic imagination.
Censorship acts as a litmus test of creative integrity, a sort of rite of passage. The prime directive of any artist is: Be curious. And then follow that curiosity wherever it leads. Sometimes it means poking one’s imagination into taboo corners of society, going where you’ve been told not to go. Breaking these taboos and asking those awkward questions, rather than bending to fit conventions, can separate artists truly dedicated to their creative vision from those who prefer to walk a safer, usually more lucrative path.
These safer paths of “political correctness” have taken many forms, from Academic painting of 19th-century France, to the “socialist realism” of Soviet Russia, to the “capitalist realism” of contemporary North America, to the subtle, even unconscious pressures to conform that artists must feel within their own peer groups. And let’s face facts: an awards jury or a grant committee or even a cocktail party of Canadian artists can be as narrow-minded and self-certain as a Conservative party caucus—they just happen to be on the opposite end of the political spectrum.
So, it’s sometimes a question of overt censorship, yes, but more often of peer pressure and self-censorship. Avoiding the temptation to adopt conventional wisdom of any sort adds a vital creative tension into the life and the work of the artist. Censorship, you might say, sharpens the instincts.
The poet Robert Frost once said that writing free verse was like playing tennis with the net down. Why bother, in other words?
Making art without the specter of censorship, without the possibility of offending or disturbing someone somewhere, must feel the same way — really, where’s the challenge? How will you know if what you do really matters? If there’s no temptation to sell out or to conform or to play safe, how can you be sure that you’ve passed the test of integrity or not?
And beyond the faulty measures of purely commercial success—those top-ten lists and gate receipts—how do you know if your art really makes a sound?
It’s no wonder then, in our cultural age of attention deficit disorder and instant amnesia, that artists might feel a pang of nostalgia for the obsessive and impassioned attention of that ultimate audience member, that all-too-careful reader, that shadow patron who stalks our dreams — the censor.