Art world balances censorship demands PDF Print E-mail
Written by DAVID DUPONT Sentinel Arts & Entertainment Editor   
Wednesday, 16 January 2013 11:27
Brian Kennedy, left, speaks on censorship at the Way Public Library. (Photo: Shane Hughes/Sentinel-Tribune)
PERRYSBURG — As a museum official who has worked on three continents, Brian Kennedy has grappled with issues of censorship.
The director of the Toledo Museum of Art has been on both sides of the issue, and he used those experiences Tuesday night at Way Public Library to shape a wide ranging survey of censorship and the visual arts
Early in his career, the book that grew from his doctoral thesis “Dreams and Responsibilities” about the relation of the state and the arts in Ireland ended up being shredded. Its problem — it made impolitic claims about an important political figure. The Irish Arts Council, which published then pulled it from shelves and shredded it, has since reissued the book. Kennedy said it is now used as a textbook.
As the director of the National Gallery in Australia he was involved in the decision to cancel the showing of the Sensation exhibition that sparked controversy when it was shown in London and Brooklyn, N.Y. One of the central images was “Black Madonna,” which used collaged pornographic images and elephant dung.
The show, Kennedy explained, was underwritten by a complex web of corporate sponsorships. In Australia, the funding was 80 percent public. So the museum with Kennedy’s assent pulled the plug as did a Japanese venue.
The exhibit was a model for “how things shouldn’t be done,” he said.
Still one newspaper, he said, described him as “a self-flagellating, Roman Catholic of the worst kind.” Kennedy quipped he has never whipped himself.
Not that Kennedy has shied away from exhibiting controversial works. The National Gallery purchased a nine-foot tall sculpture of a eight-months pregnant nude by Ron Muerck and then spent a record amount on a group portrait of nude figures by Lucian Freud.
And when the gallery staged Inside Out, a show of contemporary Chinese art, he had repeated visits by Chinese diplomats. At first they asked if he would cancel the show. Then if the gallery would remove certain works. And then place them so few people would see them. Kennedy rebuffed each request.
Kennedy said he’s well aware that certain controversial works can be used to drive attendance. “I know how to get on the front page of the newspaper,” he said.
But he indicated he preferred simply showing a work and letting viewers decide for themselves without the distracting glare of controversy.
In 2011 University of Toledo students organized an exhibit on Art and Disease. All the works except one were from the museum’s collection. The one exception was “Fire in My Belly,” a video by the late artist David Wojnarowicz.
When that video appeared in a portrait exhibit at the Smithsonian the year before, the sequence with ants crawling on a crucifix raised the ire of the Catholic Anti-Defamation League — it was called “anti-Christian hate speech” — and threats to the museum’s funding.
Still it was shown without incident, or much publicity, in Toledo.
The impulse to censor is rooted in the development of human brains, he said.
“Our human development has enabled us to conduct ourselves in society in a much more complicated manner, a much more sophisticated manner, than a primate colony,” he said.
Humans, he said, “internalize our social structures.”
“Brain science teaches us that censorship that which is regarded as offensive or blasphemous or unacceptable in one place or period in time might not be regarded as offensive in another place or period in time,” he said. “It really depends on our culture. Our culture is simply put the way we understand ourselves the way we conduct ourselves in our place and time.”
That culture shapes what people find comfortable and acceptable. “Our tendency as a society as a whole is ... to regulate those who make us uncomfortable. The role of the artist in society often creates discomfort. Many artists see themselves as maintaining watchful eye and ear on society seeking to ask questions about the processes and the structures ... by interpreting them through works of art.”
In Australia, nudity is not a source of controversy, but don’t tread on their sense of national pride.
“America is still the beacon of tolerance in the world,” Kennedy said, “but we must be vigilant.”

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