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Facing Up to Modern Censorship

There are two extremely insightful articles on Alternet about phenomena of modern censorship. Both articles concern Robert Atkins, the co-editor of "Censoring Culture: Contemporary Threats to Free  Expression". The first article "Facing Up to Modern Censorship" is an interview and the second is an excerpt from the Censoring Culture book. Both attempt to drill deeper into the dynamics of modern censorship and away from the common flat perception of censorship being solely a repressive tool used by the state. It expands the culpability to the very artists, institutions and corporations that we commonly believe to resist censorship. I've cut and pasted excerpts from the two online articles below as they relate to my own concerns about the issue of censorship.


Censorship has always been a dirty word. (It derives from the Latin for "census taker" or "tax collector, " designating one of the most reviled citizens of the Roman Empire.) In the legal sense, censorship is the governmental suppression of speech. In a broader sense, it refers to private institutions or individuals doing the same thing, suppressing content they find undesirable.  

The classic image of the censor depicts a narrow-minded and prudish bureaucrat blind to the transcendent flights of the imagination we call art, burnishing his red pen or his stamp and inkpad with perverse pleasure. This portrayal renders the censor as the very opposite of the creative artist. But censorship often operates more subtly than that, sometimes disguised as a moral imperative, at other times presented as an inevitable result of the impartial logic of the free market. No matter how it may be camouflaged, however, the result is the same: the range of what we can say, see, hear, think and even imagine is narrowed.


"Censoring Culture" expands the notion of censorship beyond the acts of removing a photograph from an exhibition or canceling a performance to include a much larger field of social conditions and practices that prevent artists' works of all kinds from reaching audiences or even from being produced. The narrow collecting purview of a museum, for instance, might be irremediably problematic for contemporary painters if no museum in their country collected work by living artists.

OR: Is this a book about politics as much as it is about art?

RA: You can't have one without the other. Artists are both a reflection and a mirror of the social conditions around them -- which is why there is change in art. You couldn't have an artist like Andy Warhol critiquing consumer culture prior to the late-19th century. As an art historian, I believe that the arts are firmly embedded in their moment, and the possibilities for artists are totally tied to the social conditions around them. The idea that artists are visionaries ahead of their time is silly. When an artist's observations are acute, they may be there before anybody else, but they're limited by social and political phenomena.

OR: If artists are canaries in the mine, what are politicians?

RA: I think politicians are always the slowest to react -- it's the squeaky wheel theory. No politician will go out on a limb for anything unless he feels his constituency is affected. While I don't believe artists are visionaries -- it seems like much too strong a word for me -- it does seem that artists and politicians are at the opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to quick responsiveness.


In Vietnam, seeing censorship in the most simplistic terms is easy. All exhibitions, gatherings and publications must have a permit. It's not rare to actually see articles and images from abroad gone over with a thick black marker (go to the library at the French Consulate in HCMC and pick up a contemporary art photography book and you will see what I mean. Nipples and groins obscured: from coarse black strokes to impressively drawn black underwear and bras). <

Alternet. Facing Up to Modern Censorship
Alternet. Censoring Culture

Posted by on April 15, 2006 1:38 PM |


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What is the diplomatic status of the Consulate's Library? I would have thought that the place - legally speaking - was French soil. (Or is that only for Embassies?) Just put a few signs up in French and Vietnamese indicating content "some may find offensive", and leave it there. (They might have to intervene by leading giggling young men out.) Censorship, in this case, seems unnecessary - and the place is meant to showcase "French" culture.

At least it is not as bad as another institution of similar purpose - albeit for the Poms. They just cut the offending pages out.

It's a great library, and it almost makes me want to know French to appreciate. Rich - a question for you - why don't the Americans do something similar with their joint.

Posted by:
Down and Out in Saigon | April 18, 2006 7:46 PM