Essay on Censorship in Art

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The instrumental theory of art claims that art serves an external purpose of some sort. According to Professor Goodyear’s class handout, “a typical function of instrumental theory includes expanding and shaping our perceptions, offering new models for interacting with the world, stimulating nationalism, pushing some ideologies, generating a catharsis for psychological health, generating certain feelings appropriate for a certain ritual or event and obtaining profound religious insight.” The physical functions of art are often the easiest to understand. A physical art work is created to perform something in the physical world. The social function of art is when it addresses aspects of collective life as opposed to someone’s point of view or experience. Political art always carries a social function. The personal functions of art are often the hardest to explain. There are many types of personal functions, and they are subjective and will, therefore, vary from person to person.

Many artists around the world, which includes the United States, are being tormented and silenced for their freedom of expression. It seems strange that, in the 21st century, individuals are being suppressed and persecuted just because they are trying to express themselves. But a growing number of artists feel like they are “left alone in the pouring rain” while everyone else is protected by the government’s umbrella of freedom of speech. Art, whether you recognize it or not, exists all around us. It is present in the music we hear, in the poetry and books we read, and even in the history books we use in our schools. All and more is art, and by censoring it, we take away a person’s right to express themselves, something which is needed in a democracy. Of course, the people’s right to express themselves has its limits; hate speech, and speech that endangers others should be prohibited. Art has been censored throughout history for different purposes, by religions, governments, schools and across cultures. Censorship and the instrumental theory of art are connected.

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By definition, censorship is suppressing any work that is considered obscene, politically, socially, or religiously unacceptable, or that threatens a nation’s security (Oxford Dictionary). But who exactly should impose or say what is acceptable or not? The National Art Education Association has made it clear that “the individual has the right to accept or reject any work of art for himself or herself personally but does not have the right to suppress those works of art…with whom he or she does not agree.” By censoring any form of art, we not only take away the individual’s basic civil rights, but we also limit diversity and exclude the number of artists in society. On the other hand, we don’t want to trample on other people’s beliefs, and make sure that the art does not violate their rights.

In democratic countries like the United States, we have the First Amendment of the Constitution to protect our freedom of speech as long as the rights of other citizens are not violated, but that is not entirely true. Like many other laws, there are always loopholes. The loopholes cannot and should not be tolerated. Pro-censorship forces use surveys and scientific research to make their ideas seem official and appealing to ordinary people, but their presentation of this research is not necessarily true. Their belief, for example, that exposure to violence causes people to react in destructive ways is not yet proven according to the current research (New York Times). A private company with plenty of money and resources can misuse “scientific research” to say that fictional violence leads to real-life crime. They can hire their researchers to say and prove exactly that. For example, research by the psychologists L. Rowell Huesmann and Leonard Eron proved through their research that elementary school children who watch excessive amounts of violent videos tend to show higher levels of aggressive behavior in their teenage years. There is a contradiction between their interpretation and reality. There is virtually no hard evidence that shows that fictional violence leads to crime. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations Center for Law, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing, or print, in the form of art or through any other media of his or her choice” (Mendel 2). As an educated, and forward-thinking society, if we are in some way disturbed by a form of expression, we as a people should be able to decide for ourselves whether to simply walk away and decline these ideas or accept them.

Some religions have played a role in censoring works of art at certain times in history. Most religions, if not all, have censored art throughout history for various reasons. The art world, a realm populated by masterpieces often hailed for their transgressive, controversial and taboo characteristics, regularly clashes against standards of decency and good taste in the fight for freedom of expression (Frank). Throughout history, works of art have been altered, silenced, and even erased due to “unacceptable content,” and the motivations for censorship were religious and political. During the Renaissance, Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement,” became controversial as soon as it was seen, and was immediately deemed obscene by the Catholic Church. At that time it was forbidden to paint nude religious art. Michelangelo got back at the Pope by painting him in Hell. Another sculpture made by Michelangelo was the statue of David, but the Catholic Church made him cover the statue’s genitals with a fig leaf because they considered the statue obscene. These two are example of instrumental theory.

Religious censorship is defined as the act of suppressing views that are contrary to those of an organized religion. It is usually justified on the grounds of blasphemy, heresy, sacrilege, or impiety. Censored works are typically viewed as being obscene, challenging a dogma, or violating a religious taboo. It is an ancient concept dating back to the times of Socrates, who himself was sentenced to death for corrupting the youth of his time.

Generally, defending against charges of obscenity and censorship are often difficult since some religious traditions allow only the religious authorities (clergy) to interpret doctrine, and the interpretation is usually dogmatic. The Catholic Church, for example, has banned hundreds of books because they are obscene and offensive. These books were viewed as dangerous by the Church's Holy Office. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a list of prohibited books, implemented by the Catholic Church in 1559 banned hundreds of books until its abolishment in 1966.

In Islam, censorship of art is on a whole different level. Although the Quran does not directly state anything about the censorship of art, Islamic theocracies have imposed Fatwas (religious orders) on content that they considered blasphemous. Several Islamic countries even employ religious police, who seize consumer products, art, and media that are considered un-Islamic. They have seized books, clothing material, CDs/DVDs of various Western musical groups’ performances and films. In Saudi Arabia, the religious police prevent the practice of proselytizing by non-Islamic religions. Visual art is also censored. According to the Sunni Islamic clergy, it is considered haram or forbidden to paint a human being and make any sculptures, play music, or perform dancing. In Shi’ism, another sect of Islam, it is permitted to render pictures of humans, but dancing and music are prohibited. In Sufism (another sect), it is only permitted to dance in a way called, “Sufi Whirling” which shows devotion to God. In short, different sects of Islam have different points of view when it comes to art and impose different censorship mandates. My own experience relates to religious censorship. In my house, there are no pictures or sculptures. This is because my family follows the Sunni sect of Islam, which forbids Muslims to have pictures in their houses.

I believe that censorship of art occurs because of society’s norms. In those societies whatever is viewed as threatening to that norm is censored under the religious umbrella. In pre-Christian Rome, it was normal to make nude sculptures. After Emperor Constantin made Christianity the state religion in 323 AD, nude sculptures became taboo. Similarly, in Pre-Islamic Arabia, making sculptures of gods was viewed as devotion to the gods, but once Islam came to Arabia, making a sculpture to worship its aesthetic beauty became a capital offense by the Islamic clergy.

As a counterargument, censorship of art may be helpful. It provides a level of defense against the corruption of youth, demoralization of religion and values. A sexual painting in a public area for example will be viewed by all ages, even children. Children are innocent by nature. Their minds are still developing, and such visuals can impact their mind negatively. According to my psychology professor Paul Siegel, children form mental representations of things they see around them. Children cannot understand the meaning behind the art. They just imitate what they see. Therefore, it is understandable that many people want sexual references or violent depictions in art to be censored in public places.

In addition, art should not be used to spread hatred among communities or to demoralize a religion. For example, “Innocence of Muslims”, a video featuring an offensive depiction of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad prompted protests around the world, and more than 20 governments demanded Google to either block or remove the video. This video led to the banning of YouTube in Pakistan for 3 years and created tension between Western and Islamic governments. Many terrorist organizations showed that video to innocent children to convince them that the West is humiliating the prophet and Islam; therefore, they should avenge the prophet’s insult. Furthermore, in another incident, a Nepali artist received death threats when his mashup painting of Hindu gods and Western superheroes went on display at a gallery in Kathmandu.

Finally, censorship of art can have positive effects. For example, a school in Berlin has “removed a series of six nude paintings in an attempt to acknowledge and respect Muslim religious beliefs” (Huffington Post). The school feared that the nude paintings might prevent Muslim students from attending classes. Those paintings were in a public place, and the viewers were forced to see the images that should be censored. Understanding the situation, the school made the right decision to avoid offending the Muslim Students. In this case, censorship was essential to maintain the educational environment. These examples show that censorship is appropriate in certain situations because it acts as protection against an inappropriate display of art. In all three previous examples, the use of censorship is justified. Censoring sexual or violent visuals in public is justified because it seeks to protect innocent children. In addition, any work of art should be censored if it is spreading hatred for a particular religion. Lastly, it is justified to censor art to accommodate a group’s beliefs. These three examples show how instrumental theory functions because it instills religious ideology, and prevents inappropriate interactions between art and the public.

From pre-historic times, mankind has been involved in the creation of art. Curiosity of objects and ideas has allowed people to evolve into a better society. Art has played a major role around the world. Throughout history, art has been used to instigate revolutions. For example, in 1938, a visionary poet named Muhammad Iqbal used his poetry to spark a revolution for a separate state for Indian Muslims. “Words, without power, is mere philosophy (Muhammad Iqbal). Iqbal was convinced that through his poetic verses, he would inspire Indian Muslims to fight for a separate nation. This again refers to the function of instrumental theory because it stimulates nationalism. Many governments around the world have censored art to prevent revolutions. For example, in China, a communist nation, there is no individual ideology; beliefs are determined by the government. Those who are brave enough to spout a different ideology put their life in danger. Ai Weiwei, one of the few in the small groups of activists in China, has demonstrated to help push his country out of its old thinking and into modernism. Ai Weiwei believed that “modernity cannot exist without freedom of speech” (Kunzru, 3). Together the group of activists pasted advertisements on the so-called “Democracy Wall” as a sort of attention grabber. Weiwei writes, “We want to be masters of the world and not instruments…We want a modern lifestyle and democracy for the people. Freedom and happiness are our sole objectives in accomplishing modernization” (Kunzru, 4). Wei was arrested later and sentenced to 15 years in a labor camp. (Kunzru. 4). Wei is a man whose wishes are for all humanity to live in the present not in the past. He is a firm believer that “Creativity is the power to reject the past, to change the status quo and to seek new potential” (Kunzru, 6). The example above again shows the function of instrumental theory because it is pushing Ai Weiwei's ideology of democracy.

Although those who are silenced by the government in the United States are not classified as torture victims that is only because of the eight amendment in the Constitution that states: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Artists in other countries - mostly communist - are tortured. Communism has a much unpersuadable perspective of individual human rights. If individuals create works of art that are against the government, they are punished. The UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Committee Against Torture have both concluded that prolonged solitary confinement may amount to torture (PEN International). Aron Atabek, a Kazak poet who has written against President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his government, has been in prison since 2007 (PEN Internationals). His punishment is appalling. According to Atabek’s son, he tells Pen International, a worldwide association of writers, that his father is “being kept under 24-hour surveillance and access to writing materials, natural light, phone calls, and letters from his family is denied. Every day, handcuffed and hooded, he is taken for a brief walk, during which communication with other prisoners is strictly prohibited.” The only reason that he has not been physically beaten is because “international organizations know about me” Atabek said (Watch Dog). Another example of censorship of art can be seen in China today. Xinjiang is an autonomous Uygur region where China has banned the Uygur’s language, costumes, religious practices, books, media, and poetry. China has imposed complete censorship on Uygur’s cultural art to integrate them with Han Chinese forcibly. In the case of these examples, a government should not impose censorship upon its citizens. The examples in this paragraph again connect with the functions of instrumental theory because art is being censored to deny a group their rights and to suppress an ideology.

Different religions impose different types of sanctions on art, similarly, different cultures impose different sanctions on art. For example, in Pakistan, it is a capital offense to paint a picture of Prophet Muhammad while, on the other hand, in Iran, it’s okay to paint pictures of the prophet and saints. Similarly, in Western Europe, depictions of God are seen as a devotion to God, but not in Africa. Different religious societies also have holy colors which are associated with a religion. For example, in India Hindus associate their religion with red while Muslims associate their religion with green. Therefore, it is offensive to Hindus to offer something green in a Temple.

In conclusion, censorship of art can have both a negative and positive impact on society. Positive effects of censoring art include protecting children, avoiding chaos between communities and religions, and respecting others' beliefs. While a person will argue that censoring hate speech will take away his First Amendment rights, it is justified to censor art to maintain peace. On the other hand, the negative effects of censoring art are that it suppresses the individual’s right to expression, reduces diversity in society, and spreads hatred among people. I am not against censorship of art unless it is spreading hatred between people. I believe that most art has meaning behind it, but we should be more careful what we are exhibiting in public. For example, if we show sexual and violent artwork in public and a child sees it, it will affect him negatively. In psychology class, I learned that children form mental representations of things they see around them. Because children cannot interpret the meaning behind the art, they just imitate what they see. Therefore, art should be in museums. By doing only this, those people will view the art who have the desire to view it. No one will be forced to see it.  

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Essay on Censorship in Art. (2024, April 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 19, 2024, from
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