POSTED ON JULY 20, 2011:
The Philbrook hosts a lecture on art, sexuality and contemporary censorship
Since the beginning of their existence, art and artists have fallen victim to censorship -- an outside influence attempting to stifle their creative freedom based on moral preference.
No one is exempt from this, Richard Meyer, associate professor of art history at the University of Southern California, contends, though his research primarily deals with homosexuality in 20th century art.
Meyer's book, Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art, published in 2002 and the recipient of Smithsonian American Art's Charles C. Eldredge Prize for Outstanding Scholarship in American Art, discusses the censorship of art by gay artists and how they responded to that censorship.
The Philbrook Museum of Art, in partnership with Oklahomans for Equality, Tulsa's gay and lesbian advocacy group, will host Meyer on Thursday, July 21, for a lecture titled "Art, Sexuality and Censorship," which Meyer will use to bring audiences up to date on the ongoing censorship struggle.
"Art has always held a mirror up to the important issues of our time, so it's no accident that some of the most poignant work coming out of the 1980s and early '90s addresses AIDS, homophobia and the resulting censorship scandals," said Sarah Jesse, Philbrook's director of education. "Richard Meyer has been a pioneer in giving this important chapter in art history the attention it deserves."
Meyer said issues of censorship, whether they relate to race, religion or sexuality, should be of concern to all, because if one brand of censorship is deemed acceptable, then, sooner than later, censorship will pervade all forms of expression.
Meyer used the George W. Bush Administration's attempt to censor information about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- by not allowing the coffins of dead soldiers to be photographed and by trying to silence Ted Koppel's on-air reading of the names of war victims -- to relate the issue to a broader audience.
"We should all care because we're all citizens of this country, and we all want our own freedoms of expression and the freedom to know what's going on in the world, what our government is doing," Meyer said. "We all want that for ourselves, so we shouldn't say it's OK if queers don't get it or artists don't get it, because eventually that logic will mean your own freedoms will be curtailed as well.
"I don't see censorship of art as isolative from restrictions on other kinds of art and images."
And the fact is, censorship is still prevalent, even though many would argue that the nation has progressed past that point.
"We think we're post-racial because we have a black president, or that homosexuality is not so secretive anymore, or that people are more tolerant," Meyer said. "But these are deep issues in our cultural history that don't go away because progress is made. Racism doesn't go away just because you have a black president, and censorship doesn't go away just because you see gay couples on TV."
Last year, the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery hosted Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, an exhibit of gay and lesbian artwork. In an article lauding the exhibit, the Los Angeles Times cited a reference to efforts in 1989 to censor the work of artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, whose work often consisted of vivid, and sometimes violent, images of gay eroticism, by denying them National Endowment of the Arts funding (detailed in Meyer's book) as evidence of how far the federal government has come in terms of censorship.
But, just two weeks after the article printed, the Smithsonian pulled a four-minute video, an excerpt from David Wojnarowicz's 1987 A Fire in My Belly, because it featured an 11-second scene where ants were filmed crawling on a crucifix lying on the pavement. The video outraged the Catholic League and other conservative groups, who demanded it be removed from the exhibit. And it was.
Meyer's book was even the victim of censorship when its publisher, Oxford Press, wouldn't agree to distribute it outside of the U.S. as long as it included an image by Mapplethorpe of a young nude boy.
"I didn't think it was a particularly important image to the book, but I felt, if wrote this whole book on censorship and then had to take out an image because it's against the law in England, it would be hypocrisy," Meyer said.
Toby Jenkins, executive director of Oklahomans for Equality, said people might be surprised to learn that censorship is an issue that affects his organization as well.
The group's Dennis R. Neill Equality Center houses an art gallery that features an exhibition of local artwork every month. While most of the exhibits are suitable for viewing by audiences of all ages, some contain mature subject matter, and the decisions of whether and when to host those exhibitions is sometimes a touchy one.
"Most people would never believe a gay organization could be kind of prudish and puritan in its concepts," Jenkins said. "Our gallery committee is pro-artist; we don't want to censor people. If they've been shot out of another gallery -- because their work is considered obscene, too politically controversial, anti-American -- we want them to be able to pick what's in their creative spirit.
"But we have a board saying we can't have erotic images because we have children's programs and kids in building. So, in our art gallery, we have these discussions about censorship and artistic expression all the time."
Meyer pointed out that, oftentimes, that which is being censored becomes more appealing than it would have had it been left alone. Censorship creates notoriety.
"We have this sign in gallery that we hang when we have an exhibit that has any kind of nudity," Jenkins said, kind of chuckling. "It's a turn-style sign that warns you that the exhibit might not be appropriate for some audiences. Every time we put that sign up, people walk into that exhibit and immediately start hunting down the questionable piece of art -- out of 50 or 60 that might be on the wall."
Jenkins said the take-away message from his book and from his lecture at Philbrook is that, when censorship happens, the best way for people to respond is to talk about it -- openly, publicly.
"Often, censorship does occur behind closed doors or it happens in way that we don't have access to, whether it's a board of trustees, a government official or a conversation between a religious leader and the head of a museum," Meyer said. "One of ways people can respond is by making it public, not letting it be a secret."
Meyer will speak at Philbrook, 2727 S. Rockford Road, at 7pm Thursday. A cocktail reception and viewing of Philbrook's current exhibition, Rauschenberg at Gemini, precedes the talk at 6pm. More information is at philbrook.org.
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