NEARY: But the job of advocating for free speech has become ever more complicated in the age of social media, which Nossel says can be both an incredible tool for free expression and a threat to it. NOSSEL: It has a dampening effect on the depth of discourse, can lead to this kind of online mobbing and trolling where someone who says something controversial is then targeted, ridiculed. NEARY: Perhaps no one has crossed the line on social media more boldly than Milo Yiannopoulos, who was kicked off Twitter after he spearheaded a nasty campaign against black actress Leslie Jones. Yiannopoulos likes to describe himself as a free speech fundamentalist.
They want to enable the extremists on their own side and silence extremists on the other. NEARY: Yiannopoulos, an editor at the ultra-conservative Breitbart News, seems to take delight in infuriating people with remarks that are viewed as racist, misogynistic and anti-immigrant. Nobody's saying that. What they're saying is, we're shocked and we're outraged that you would stoop so low to make a buck as to publish this purveyor of vile hate speech. NEARY: Johnson is highly critical of a statement issued by the National Coalition Against Censorship on behalf of a number of industry groups representing publishers, authors and booksellers.
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JOAN BERTIN: We know of instances in which books that contain certain kinds of content have been shelved, deferred, redacted, edited deeply to remove content that people might object to. I mean I think, you know, the whole idea of free speech requires us to be active participants. And when we hear ideas that we think are bad and harmful, it requires us to say why, not just say shut up.
This is about combating hate speech and its entry into the mainstream. View the discussion thread. Copyright NPR. Another day, another all-white list of recommended reading. This year's New York Times summer reading list , compiled annually by Times literary critic Janet Maslin, offered up zero books by non-white authors. Novelist Angela Flournoy recently said , "I think it's an undue burden for the writer of color that's just trying to get people to care about their book as much as other people's books, to then also be the one to have the answers.
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Yiannopoulos likes to describe himself as a free speech fundamentalist: Trying to suppress hateful speech doesn't make it go away. This is not about censoring right wing voices. So much for democracy. Exacerbation of conflict: Social polarization Aside from structural policy changes and direct suppression of artwork, the new administration has exacerbated longstanding conflicts which has led to the further polarization of an already split nation.
Such polarization affects conversations about race and racism, traumatic histories, indigenous rights, sexuality, class, and the Middle East, among others. On some of the issues the President sets the tone more powerfully than on others, but the generally angry and accusatory tone coming from the White House resonates through all aspects of the public sphere, including the art world. It is thus not surprising that a loud, openly racist, nationalist and white supremacist alt-right sees itself aligned with the President and his top advisors. The administration has done very little to correct that impression.
It is harder than ever to deal with the conflict in artistic representation. Right-wing activists regularly paint individuals and institutions who are critical of Israeli government policies as anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic in an effort to silence them. Many of these efforts are successful. On the other side of the political spectrum, the cultural BDS movement threatens to boycott any institution that hosts work which is supported by Israeli government funds.
The author, Grossman, is an outspoken critic of the Israeli government and its cultural policies, as well as a prominent peace activist.
Nevertheless, a large group of prominent New York cultural figures—playwrights, filmmakers, actors, and directors, including Caryl Churchill, Wallace Shawn, Lynn Nottage, and Taylor Mac—demanded that Lincoln Center cancel To the End of the Land because the production received Israeli government funding. Lincoln Center proceeded with the play.
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Cancelling performances would have deprived audiences of an important critical voice coming from within Israel, as well as of the opportunity to deepen their understanding of the human side of a tragic socio-political conflict. Any cultural producer considering content related to the Middle East or exhibitions featuring artists from the area needs to prepare to face protests.
As always, the worst consequence of such controversies is that, instead of daring the often ugly and ad-hominem invective of protesters, cultural producers may censor themselves and avoid dealing with the issue altogether.
Funding pressures Contrary to the s, in the current cultural conflict the focus is not on government funding the arts. Congress has since voted to continue funding the agency. Federal funding for the arts is so diminished and so conservatively allocated already, it is hard to get even right-wing conservatives excited about its uses. Indeed, almost all recent controversies over art have taken place in private institutions and, where funding pressures have been used, they have originated with private funders.
Private funders and the pressures they exercise have long been a problem in a country which prefers to leave artistic freedom to the whims of the free market than to provide public support for art. Even when not bent on reinforcing their political point of view, private funders become skittish when their brands get attached to controversial content—especially if that content is critical of those in power. The public stood firm in the face of funding pressures, individual hecklers, and even death threats. Other corporate donors quickly stepped in to fill the funding gap.
But could a smaller and less venerable institution take a similar risk? Pre-emptive self-censorship for fear of lost funding is hard to document, but familiar to any leader of a cultural institution in the US. Traumatic histories and the political left While funding pressures, government censorship, and controversy around the Middle East are all familiar and persistent threats to artistic freedom, a brief look at the recent drumroll of high-profile art controversies points at a newly powerful actor: grassroots and netroots efforts coming from the political left that call on institutions to refuse a platform to art they find disturbing or ethically objectionable.
A rising nationalist and racist alt-right and a divisive presidency, complete with accusatory tweets, attacks on mainstream media, and a failure to take a firm position against racism or police violence, contribute to the anger fuelling those protests. High profile art controversies in came at the rate of one every two to three weeks, with targets expanding to a point where a white artist, because of the colour of their skin, is not only criticized when making work about historical trauma affecting minorities, they—and the exhibiting institution—become subject to personal threats.
Calls for censorship and the destruction of the artwork come from groups that previously were staunch supporters of artistic freedom when this freedom was threatened by the religious right. They justify censorship now in the name of social justice and of protecting minorities from the pain certain historical representations may provoke. Who can represent traumatic history? Tortured and lynched in because a white woman claimed he offended her with sexually suggestive remarks, Till became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement after his mother decided to publicly release an image of his corpse in its casket.
The Biennial was deliberately participating in the national conversation about race and police violence against black men. To their credit, neither the Whitney nor ICA bowed to pressures for censorship. The Whitney added a statement from the artist to the wall text accompanying the work and also invited poet and author Claudia Rankine, founder of the Racial Imaginary Institute, to organize a public panel and conversation about the controversy. The broader debate around the work—which took place across print media, the internet, as well as at the Whitney panel—was passionate and angry, insightful and revealing of deeper conflicts.
It revealed deep grievances and fissures within the art world. If anything, it proved how productive controversy could be if an institution is true to its mandate and stands by curatorial decisions. Consensus has not been reached and is unlikely to be reached anytime soon , but positions have been developed, heard and challenged.
A month or so after the Whitney controversy, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis faced questions and then loud protests over a new sculpture to be installed in the large public space in front of the institution. The sculpture, which looked somewhat like playground equipment, was in fact a composite of seven gallows used in executions by the US government over the past years.
Conceived by multimedia, socially-engaged artist Sam Durant, the sculpture, titled Scaffold , sought to draw attention to the death penalty and its effects. What fired up the controversy was the inclusion, among the historical gallows structures, of one that had been used in to execute 38 Dakota men about 80 miles away from the Walker in Mankato, MN.
Minnesota has the largest Native American population in the country and when some Dakota nation members recognized the Mankato gallows in sculpture, they claimed deep emotional disturbance and the sense of being traumatized by the work. This apology, rather than acting as a bridge of reconciliation, sparked a wave of protests against the work. Just days later, representatives of the city, Walker, the artist and Dakota elders, met and agreed that the sculpture would be removed and disposed of in any way the Dakota wanted; in addition, all intellectual property rights to it would go to the Dakota so that it would never be displayed again, anywhere.
Ironically, the intent of the artist in creating Scaffold was not that different from the intent of some Dakota Nation Minnesotans who had been educating a younger generation about events such as the Mankato executions. Similarly, the intent of Dana Schutz to speak to the racist violence at the heart of American history was not, in itself, controversial.
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The controversies, in both cases, arose over who had the right to speak about traumatic histories and, to a lesser extent, how those histories should be spoken about. While the Walker failed to develop this conversation in the way the Whitney did, the issue remains on the table. There is no getting out of our intertwined history. These lines demand purity, clarity, and an unambiguous distribution of historical guilt and victimhood.
A major component in recent controversies has been the personal narrative of pain and trauma. The Walker found it hard to stand by Scaffold when Dakota in the community began to talk about the pain they experienced when looking at the work. Listening to emotional experience is a welcome recognition that such experience has cognitive value, as well as that a certain type of reasoned debate is linked to education and class and excludes those who are socially marginalized.
However, relying on emotion as argument mirrors the international rise of populism and its gross manipulation of base sentiment. Appealing to feelings is a politically dangerous strategy. Manipulating these emotions are what populist politicians have always done well—unfortunately, at a high cost to society at large.
It is thus disturbing to see that feelings of pain are at the centre of increasing numbers of censorship campaigns coming from the political left. Whereas emotional response should not be dismissed, it is dangerous to let it have the final word. A conversation that takes into account both emotional response and reasoned argument is more necessary than ever. The Walker missed the opportunity to lead such a conversation. Public universities, which have faced many recent calls to remove or cover murals have been more successful at navigating the complex territory of present day emotional responses to historical trauma.
As part of an effort to overcome the great depression and provide jobs, WPA employed musicians, artists, writers, actors, and directors in large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects. Some murals were realistic, others depicted the grandeur of the American landscape, and quite a few were politically charged and idealistic, focusing on labour and their struggles. Conservatives, back in the day, irked by images of workers, representations of class disparity and the occasional appearance of Karl Marx, opposed government funding for the programme.