Speech Art

Cover of Bezanson's Randall P Bezanson has just pubished another very important book on on Art and Freedom of Speech (University of Illinois Press, 2009), exploring the decisions of the US Supreme Court relating to artistic expression under the First Amendment. From the abstract:

… In considering the transformative meaning of art, the importance of community judgments, and the definition of speech in Court rulings, Bezanson focuses on the fundamental questions underlying the discussion of art as protected free speech: What are the boundaries of art? What are the limits on the government’s role as supporter and “patron” of the arts? And what role, if any, may core social values of decency, respect, and equality play in limiting the production or distribution of art?

Accessibly written and evocatively argued, Art and Freedom of Speech explores these questions and concludes with the argument that, for legal purposes, art should be absolutely free under the First Amendment–in fact, even more free than other forms of speech.

In matters that have recently featured on this blog, his views on blasphemy (discussed here) and treaspassory art (discussed here) will resonate with our recent blasphemy and Cowengate controversies.

Mark Tushnet has written an excellent discussion of Bezanson’s book. Posing the question “Why exactly are Jackson Pollock’s paintings protected by the First Amendment?”, he argues that

People should check their wallets whenever the Supreme Court takes some proposition as unquestionable. Randall Bezanson shows why. Every route that you might take to explain why non-representational art is covered by the First Amendment leads to mind-bending problems, and rather rapidly places some other unquestionable proposition about free speech under pretty severe pressure. …

This isn’t to say that Bezanson’s proposed solution to the problems posed for the First Amendment by non-representational art is satisfactory. He says that art should be absolutely protected against government sanction, even more so than propositional speech. … Bezanson sometimes seems to think that his absolute rule is tolerable because he would apply it only to serious art. … Early on, Andy Warhol’s work wasn’t “serious” enough. Now it’s central to the study of mid-twentieth century art, full stop. Rules that purport to make important differences turn on a distinction between serious art and unserious “art” are unlikely to succeed.

It’s worth reading Tushnet’s review in full, and then it’s worth reading Bezanson’s book too. It demonstrates that the most profound questions about freedom of expression are often raised not in the context of the participatory political process but in the contested field of human emotions. The problems outlined in the book are universal; the analysis may be centred on the First Amendment; but it will surely provide a sure guide if and when the issues come up in other courts on foot of other free speech guarantees.

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