Censorship and Expression: The Challenge off the Provocative in Museums.

When is provocative too provocative? This past week, three pieces were pulled from the Guggenheim Museum’s show “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World”  due to protests from animal rights activists concerned about the portrayal of animals in this exhibit. The works pulled from the exhibit depict eight Pitbull’s on eight treadmills trying to fight each other, pigs engaged in intercourse, and insects, snakes, and small lizards underneath a lamp.

The removals from the Guggenheim follow the removal of Scaffold, a sculpture opposing capital punishment, drawing from controversial hangings in U.S. history from the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, as well as protests at the Whitney Museum of Art surrounding Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket,  portraying  Emmitt Till’s mutilated body.

The censorship vs expression battle between museums, artists, and the public is nothing new. Marcel Duchamp faced criticism for his found object art in 1917, and Picasso’s 1937 mural depicting the massacre of a Basque village was censored in the 1960s because Americans thought it was insensitive to Vietnam.

Artists have a right to express, but does a museum have the right to display works that may cause harm to others or that causs harm to the subjects of the work (in the Guggenheim case the animals)? If museums are held in the public trust, they should listen to the responses of the audience. Yet at the same time, museums are not neutral institutions. Whether implicitly or explicitly they push social, political, and even economic themes. The issue of censorship becomes clear when the staff, faculty, and museum goers safety comes into question. If the public is threatening violence over an exhibit, pieces need to be removed.

Perhaps in the case of the Guggenheim the works were correctly removed because they display physical harm done to animals, which is not good art. The animals were actually in these perilous situations to be photographed. Yet in cases such as Dana Shutz’s at the Whitney, she was not putting any creature in physical harm with her paintings, rather members of social activist groups did not feel she had authority as a white woman to paint a black man’s brutal  death. In the cases of censorship how does a museum weight physical vs. emotional harm in their decision to remove a piece?

As with most controversy, there is no clear answer to the expression v. censor debate. Yet I do feel that any physical harm or violence incited over the pieces in a museum should trigger the removal of the object so as to protect the workers and visitors. These protests against artwork may begin to pop up more frequently as social media fuels social protests and change. Museums will need to figure out a means to deal with the bold and provocative while remaining safe institutions for the public.