PRINT November 1963

The Suppression of Art

SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO in Philadelphia the “Evening Bulletin” was shocked to learn that to Thomas Eakins “Art knows no sex.” The painter had pressed for art students of both sexes to work from the nude model in his classes at the Pennsylvania Academy. The American prudery summoned up by Eakins’ honest efforts to extend the students’ experience and knowledge of human anatomy resulted in his being fired from the Academy. The nude was suspect as an offensive expression of sexuality. 75 years have passed but the same kind of puritan thinking survives in our public life. In the last two years the City and County of San Francisco, the City and County of Los Angeles and the City of San Diego have been concerned with legislation requiring artist’s models to register with the police and artists and photographers to obtain permits to employ such models. This misunderstanding of, if not contempt for, the artist’s civil liberties, under the veil of protection against prostitution and the making of lewd photos, treats the model like a drug addict and the artist like a procurer, demeaning both professions. The San Francisco ordinance has become law and has served as a model for Los Angeles County. The ordinance was modified in the City of Los Angeles and defeated entirely in San Diego.

Artists and models, booksellers and experimental film exhibitors are not well organized to combat censorship activity or invasions of civil liberties. Only rarely are they able to make even a modest resistance to repressive actions by any community element. In a recent case at the San Fernando Valley State College, artists and their dealers did make such a show of resistance. An exhibition had been invited from five commercial galleries to illustrate the arts at mid-century in the college’s exhibition space. An official of the school found a sculptural construction by Ed Kienholz to be censorable. He sought to remove the invited work prior to the opening of the exhibition, though the art faculty resisted this action by majority vote. Nonetheless the work was removed. The invited artists and their representatives were shocked and disbelieving but they quickly regrouped and withdrew all invited works in an unusual show of community feeling and a collective criticism of the censorship action.

The campus newspaper, “The Sundial,” reported one art department member as saying: “This is pre-censorship. (It) . . . works on the assumption that something” might “be offensive to someone. A person has a right to be offended.” Later a student statement was reproduced in the school paper, which read in part: “Because a point of view expressed by one of the objects was offensive to a few individuals, these individuals said that the piece should be removed. They were in effect attempting to hide one point of view from the public. ‘Any living situation in which an artist finds materials pertinent to his own temper is a proper situation in art.’ (Ben Shahn from ‘The Shape of Content’).” A replacement exhibition was improvised quickly by artists who did not clearly understand the issue by which they were confronted. The student body lost an opportunity to become informed, to exercise esthetic judgments and to become involved in an important moral debate. A nervous and pathetic administration permitted a fearsome college community to compromise an institution’s integrity. “Little children come to the public campus and would see the piece,” was advanced as an excuse for the suppression. Felix Frankfurter had made the final reply to this a generation before when he wrote, “. . . the effect of this is to reduce the adult population to reading only what is fit for children . . . to quarantine the general public in order to shield innocence . . . surely this is to burn down the house to roast the pig.”

The vigilante group of self-ordained decency defenders is another manifestation of the suppression and censorship syndrome in our life. The American Library Association has remarked on the “silly season” when censorship becomes the concern of groups from one end of the country to the other, with particular virulence in the South. A recent example from the art field took place in Tucson, Arizona, and serves to point out the power of such blind attacks. The 13th Annual Tucson Festival Art Show was juried by a well-qualified art professional, Dr. Thomas Leavitt, Director of the Pasadena (California) Art Museum. A painting, “Self Portrait with Martini,” by Jack Stuck, a Los Angeles painter, was accepted for the exhibition. The work depicts a left profile of a male figure, nude, holding a cocktail glass in the right hand. Dr. Leavitt told the local paper in response to a telephone inquiry, that “I don’t think the human anatomy is any great secret.” “(It) . . . was a work of quality and as a work of art it certainly qualified for the exhibit. I considered the painting a very intriguing and competent work of art.” A Tucson matron, Mrs. Violet Dilley, long-distance telephone operator, didn’t agree. Mrs. Dilly claimed that she “. . . had seen plenty of nude art in galleries and other public places but nothing as repulsive as this.” She made a citizen’s complaint to police asking that the painting be suppressed from public view. The City Prosecutor, Frank Ellig, said later, “I believe you’d have to use your imagination pretty hard (to make the painting appear obscene).” A storm of controversy developed around the painting. As usual the columns of news prose did not serve to illuminate the issue but were uniformly hostile to the work of art. At no point did Voltaire’s dictum, that while he disagreed with his opponent he would defend to the death his right to be heard, become raised in the discussion. The value of free speech, the meaning of artistic expression as a human activity protected by the free speech provisions of the State and Federal constitutions, went undiscussed. The newspapers which would logically be expected to defend the first amendment were absolutely silent on the real issue. In this case the alarming provincial vigilante movement was defeated with reference to Mr. Stuck’s painting but the effect was harmful and the issue was never clarified. The artist’s freedom of expression had been cast in shadow. The esthetic freedom of the exhibitor and judge had been seriously questioned. The right of the citizenry to see and judge had been diminished.

In another area, the social and political vigilante groups attacked the Refregier murals at the Rincon Annex of the San Francisco Post Office, some years ago. Their battle cry was a claim that the artist was “Communist inspired” because his historic al murals depicted a not entirely flattering series of references to the development of the Bay city. Such subject matter as the incidents surrounding the Civil War, the persecution of the Chinese, the 1934 general strike and the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco were criticized. After repeated attacks the murals are still in place, but the issue has never been resolved. The public was never adequately informed that the artist was duly selected through competition, was given certain freedoms in the commission, and after approval of the working drawings, he executed the work in a thoroughly professional manner. Unless these challenges to artistic liberties are turn ed into object lessons and case law defenses, each lunatic attack must be met individually by the artist concerned. Here he is at his weakest, his most vulnerable. Artists must secure adequate protections through the courts if they are to enjoy the kind of growing independence achieved by the writer, bookseller and publisher.

The impact of censors and suppression groups is hard to evaluate because most often they operate through “gentlemen’s agreements” and on a private basis, outside of the public eye. Community pressure on newsstands to remove the “girlie” magazines and the paperback novels questioned by proper ladies is a widely recognized tool of thought suppression. Its effectiveness is hard to evaluate and the possibility of such cases reaching the courts is minimal. For example, in the art of painting, a celebrated and important mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros was executed in 1932 in the Olvera Street Mexican settlement in Los Angeles. This mural has been painted out as the result of pressure on the owner arising from the so-called radical politic s of the artist.

There was a time in book publishing when the “Decameron,” Rabelais and Chaucer were considered to be censorable books. The fear of nudity, the mention of sex, the concern with the relations of the sexes was a matter of secrecy and shame. With Justice Woolsey’s decision in the “Ulysses” case, it seemed that the tide had turned. He said in that opinion that the book was not written for the purpose of exploiting obscenity but was an honest effort to show how the minds of the characters operate. Woolsey pointed out that one may not wish to read the book but that in reading it in its entirety one would find that it did not tend to excite sexual impulses or lustful thoughts but that it was a powerful and somewhat tragic commentary on life. In countless cases across our country, however, the work does not get to court. The command to “read the book in its entirety” or to see the exhibition in its unity, is ignored by locaI officers and judges. In the Wally Berman case, a Los Angeles judge said, recently: “We have no need to have an art expert tell us what is pornographic.” Like many another artist before and after, Berman paid his fine rather than carry the fight through expensive years to a just decision.

San Francisco Police Captain Hanrahan had no difficulty in recognizing Allen Ginsberg’s “How l and other poems” as “Lewd and not fit for children to read.” Eventually the book was permitted to circulate but the legitimacy of censorship is never questioned effectively by an accused artist. Today we are permitted to encounter the unexpurgated “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” by D. H. Lawrence. Most readers find this to be one of the most beautiful and enduring of 20th-century books, a sensitive and loving proclamation of the human spirit. It took thirty years before that work could be put before the American public, precisely because of the censor and the traditionalism he attempts to enforce. Progress has been made in recent years but it has been made in the courts, at great expense and without changing the fact that most cases do not reach the courts and the police enforce the law as they interpret it. Their enforcement customarily reflects an anti-intellectual attitude and little concern for constitutional protections.

Much censors hip activity is simply related to a conservatism that is confined to such fields as art, social issues and politics. The traditional wisdom and morals would dictate caution and reserve. The growth and development of art do not necessarily proceed in the same way. The tendency to judge art works by the standards of Sunday School morality is absurd. Traditionalism and conservatism in the sphere of ideas and opinions of a creative or speculative nature is of questionable value to the society. It tends to be repressive and to withhold energy from the life of nations. It is interesting to note that while the new or unusual is greeted easily when presented by the scientist, it may be met with incredulity or belligerency when promoted by the artist.

There is always a challenge in the never-before-seen, that some have learned to find stimulating to the visual intelligence. The new image is not less attractive than the new conceptions of science. Naum Gaba has said, “It was not long ago that electricity to us was the image of a sneezing and ferocious god—after that it became a current, later on it became a wave, today it is a particle—tomorrow its image will shrink to the symbol of some concise mathematical formula. What is it at all if not an ever-changing chain of images, ever true and ever reaI so long as they are in use—both the old one which we discard and the new which we construe?” Why cannot the artist discard old images and create new ones more in accord with the life of a century which follows Darwin, Marx and Freud? He not only can, but he must if he is to give form to and express the inchoate feelings of our society. His challenge is to utilize the human feelings of our time in new expressions reflective of our different awareness and concern. Our symbol makers must be free to select themselves, to find and express the images that will summarize our foibles and our achievements.

New art requires new perceptions, and new sensitivities. It may well be argued that if the art of the period is not new that it is probably not art at all. To have the experience of new works of art one must be open to them, sensitive and willing to be touched by them. One element of our society has traditionally negated every step along the path of modern art from Manet to the present. Often the landmarks of the period have been vilified or suppressed for a time as unfit for youthful eyes. Without an audience which is committed to openness and empathy, the efforts and discoveries of the artist can be retarded or lost. Censorship and anti-intellectual suppressions are among the most dangerous threats to our society and the development of the art forms which are the true measure of the civilization.

Gerald Nordland