Of course, as Robert Atkins points out, censorship is practically a biological determinate, a universal impulse and a recurrent feature in everybody's heritage. It is a consummate chameleon, taking on the coloration, the rhetoric and the techniques which are native to its particular landscape. And, as Carol Becker's essay shows, acts of censorship don't happen in a vacuum; they are shaped by culture, by social and political context, by history, by technology, and even by geography.
Censorship imposed by a State--no matter what its political inclinations--is one of the more easily recognized varieties. Dictatorships, such as the one in Uruguay which imprisoned artist Clemente Padin, have tended to be pretty direct in their style of censorship--they silence, exile, imprison, disappear and execute people. In Padin's case (which followed from artwork he made which "insulted" the regime), his jailers even charged him for the "services rendered" during his incarceration (that is, food and lodging)--an audacity which makes them pretty easy to point a finger at.
The fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie, probably the most
case of contemporary censorship, was also the result of an insult to a
State, though in his case it was a religious ideology rather than a
ego which was being defended from harm. Rushdie's case has had a
legacy; translators of "The Satanic Verses" have been assassinated, and
publishers of the book have been threatened and shot.
In Cuba, paper supplies dried up in the late 80s, at around the same time that the country was undergoing a political tightening, which in turn was at around the same time that the East Bloc suspended trade with them. Most publications, except for the Communist Party newspaper, were suddenly unable to continue printing. (Ironically, the situation reversed itself recently, at about the same time as a dollar economy has developed in the country. It has now become possible for anyone-- including the most critical and sarcastic writers-- to publish pretty much whatever they want, at government printing houses, provided they have the dollars to pay for it. )
It would be simplistic to believe that it is only the people in power who engage in censorship; opposition and revolutionary movements also find the need, and the rationale, to censor. One example might be the cultural boycott which was maintained for years in South Africa by a coalition led by the African National Congress. In theory, the boycott was meant to prevent international artists from inadvertently "legitimizing" the apartheid regime, by preventing them from having anything to do with it. The effect of the boycott, though, was that artists and audiences inside the country were virtually cut off from cultural developments and activities happening anywhere else in the world, even the ones which were supportive of the anti-apartheid movement. Students inside the country also couldn't get books from the rest of the world, even the ones they needed for their studies. The South African boycott shares a certain logic with the "Trading With The Enemy" legislation in the US, which prohibits citizens from engaging in any activity which might benefit an enemy state; included among potential "benefits" are exhibitions of artworks, musical performances, and so on.
Communist Bulgaria was relatively subtle, as governments go, in its style of controlling artists. Since the dictator's daughter was an ardent supporter of the arts, artists often found themselves in the paradoxical position of having access to substantial amounts of support from the government which came, invariably, with odd strings attached. For example, the Artists' Union used to organize its exhibitions around very literal themes, like "Man and the Landscape," which limited participation to "official" circles. Any artists whose work didn't elucidate those themes (for starters, any "abstract" art) weren't included in the shows, or in the system of financial and political benefits which came along with that. This apparently benign coercion was reincarnated recently in the US, in the form of the National Endowment for the Arts's infamous decency clause which forced artists to promise not to be "obscene" in order to receive support for their work.
Censorship in the Information Age has its own rules; the ease with which traditional means of news suppression can now be accomplished can make a mockery of the old-fashioned red pen idea of the censor. In Canada, a recent court case was kept out of the news by the national government; in retaliation, computer networkers set up information bulletin boards on the Internet which reported all the intricacies and minutiae of the case. In the US, the federal government is reacting to cyberspaceÕs unregulated flow of information and expression by pushing a legislated mandate of the "Clipper Chip," which would make it possible for all transmissions to be intercepted by law enforcement agencies.
Obviously, censorship needs to be understood as much more than a unilateral act which has to be opposed. It is a complex part of our interactions at every level-- between individuals, as a means of leveraging power, as an instrument of political control. With an insidious pervasiveness, censorship can even become a device deployed in the fight against itself, for example in the case of performance artist Holly Hughes, who was first censored by the NEA and who was then pressured by anti-censorship activists to not make an issue of the scandal's clear homophobia, lest her lesbian identity "turn off straight people."
Perhaps most importantly, though, are the internal censors, which are the most broadly contaminating while attracting the least notice. Limiting our own activities out of fear of disapproval or reprisals, we often find it difficult to know when we are going over the invisible line between quiet and silence. A tendency toward caution grows, and an external censor becomes unnecessary. In the US, we have a habit of thinking that there is a clear dividing line between censorship and acceptable methods of controlling expression. In order to believe this, we also like to believe that there are clear limits which can be put on expression, which are unequivocal and legally explicit. Until a few years ago, we like to believe that censorship was something that happened under totalitarianism, but not under democracy. Along the same lines, we were reassured by the belief that censorship goes along with extremism-- that only extremists do it, and that reasonable people don't attract it.
In the course of the past few years, these certainties have pretty much wiped out. The fight over "free speech" has become so entangled with fights over political correctness, mandated multiculturalism, and academic freedom that there is no longer even the illusion of consensus about what kinds of expression should and should not be allowed or, to put it a little differently, about where the limits of democracy lie.
Much of the battle here over censorship and expression has been fought in the arts, which have provided both an easy target and a potent symbol. A target, because of the perennial indifference of the arts toward all the various realities and problems of the "real" world: this status was cemented by the super-publicized excesses and corruptions of the 80s art market. And a symbol because, as it happened, the art that was causing all the problems tended to be made by people who were themselves the focus of a lot of heat (gays, for instance), and about questions of equity, access to resources, diversity and tolerance that had already become punching bags in the media, in churches, in schools, and in workplaces. Censorship in the arts is the surface ripple; the underlying fight over civic and personal values is one of the deepest and bitterest we've ever had in this country. While The File Room is about incidents around the world and throughout history, it has been made at this particular time, and in this country, because of the shattering impact that these recent experiences have had on this country's sense of itself.
The Culture Wars have provoked a much broader debate between art and the larger society in this country than has ever existed before. This is the ironic counterpart to the defensiveness and marginalization that have also been the results of the extended assault on the arts. The experience has made it absolutely clear that the right to expression loses all centrality when it is claimed in the absence of a context of responsibility. The File Room is a disturbing testament to the history that censorship is writing among us. It is also a resource. Mark Twain said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." It would be a very good rhyme indeed if we could now begin to use all this history in the service of provocations which are just as concerned with what we can aspire to accomplish with our speech as with the right to perpetuate it.
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