Should galleries and museums display offensive art?

'The Death of American Spirituality' by David Wojnarowicz (1987) from the collection of John Carlin and Renee Dossick, via the Queer Arts siteI have on this blog regularly discussed the extent to which offensive speech can be restricted. For example, there are many (many) posts on this blog on censorship and blasphemy. Furthermore, I have referred to the censorship of Guillaume Apollinaire (here and here), Carolina Gustavsson, Aldous Huxley, DH Lawrence (here, here and here), James Joyce, John Latham, Robert Mapplethorpe and Vladimir Nabokov. Moreover, I have analysed the kinds of reasons why this kind of speech should not be censored: free speech means freedom for the thought we hate, even that of David Irving (eg, here, here, here, and here), Jean-Marie le Pen, or Kevin Myers, and even – especially! – in multi-cultural societies, especially – especially!! – online.

I was reminded of all of this by two recent blogposts. First, on, Michael C. Moynihan writes Defending the Right to Offend: The never-ending assault on free expression (with added links):

There is one upside to all of this backsliding on freedom of expression. It can be waved away as a cliché, but it’s true that the more governments, fundamentalists, publishers, and broadcasters curtail the dissemination of information and images deemed “controversial” or “offensive,” the greater interest the public will take. … Opposition to censorship must be evenly applied, without special consid­eration to group feelings, without ideological exception … we don’t get to choose our allies in the fight for free speech. … remember the sage advice of writer Michael Kinsley who, during the 2006 Danish cartoon affair, made a point that was once considered obvious:

The limits of free expression cannot be set by the sensitivities of people who don’t believe in it.

Second, on Clancco: Art + Law, Charles Gaines writes about Free Speech and Property Rights: Censorship in the Arts in response to recent court decisions concerning Christoph Büchel and Karen Finley and events concerning artistic speech at the National Portrait Gallery [where the Smithsonian removed a video by David Wojnarowicz, an example of whose work can be seen top, left], the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles [which painted over an anti-war mural by Italian artist Blu], and the Gagosian Gallery in New York City [which ejected four activists for wearing T-shirts promoting an effort to include an American boat in the next blockade-challenging Gaza flotilla]. He could also have mentioned the recent sanitzation of Huckleberry Finn (not the first time the book has been mired in controversy). Here are some extracts from his provocative piece:

… we find two quite separate interests scrambled together like an omelet confusing our understanding: our interest in protecting art as a humanistic discipline, that freedom of speech (action and expression) gives us the capacity to realize our full potential as human beings, and our interest in protecting property, which points to questions like who owns this work of art. We understand that often we speak through the objects we produce and we believe we own that speech even if someone else owns the object (property rights questions).

Because of our failure to understand the difference between these two interests, our protests over censorship have been inconsistent in their foundation. … Artists and institutions are increasingly using law as a weapon to protect free speech. But they are beginning to realize that this action is actually contributing to the demise of art. As in the Büchel case, these suits are affirming more and more that art has to be considered property in matters of free speech, and this moves the idea of art away from philosophical or moral principles. … This brings the realization that the law cannot resolve this alone. So instead, artists should call for the art institution (museum, gallery, periodical) to rethink its relationship to the arts and to artists, and they should do this for philosophical/ethical reasons and not for what is permitted by law. They should pledge a commitment to the idea of art, and consider when censoring speech the damage this would do.

… The right by the … [Gagosian] gallery to constrain speech cannot itself be constrained by the government because that would be tantamount to the constraint of speech through the takeover of private property. … The idea here is that speech and property create an indissociable space that the idea of unprotected speech does not settle. The conflict between these two principles goes unnoticed by many who have written about art and free speech. …

In this muddled field it should be clear that the primary principle is that of Free Speech, the speech of individuals, not the corporation. And we should keep in mind the purpose of free speech; to give to the citizen the tools to self govern and achieve the full realization of their human powers. We should not confuse this right with the right to own property. To this end we should concern ourselves with the question, how can individual speech be protected even when not only the government but also the corporation seek to limit it? The Gagosian incident reflects the problematic history of the attempt to control peaceful protected and unprotected political speech. … Art has a long history of contributing to our social, cultural and political lives, and this history should not be negated, but built upon in order to work toward our full human potential. Instead of committing only to their rights as autonomous agencies, we ask that the institutions of art, such as magazines, museums, galleries, agree to publicly sign on to these values and include in their mission statements their commitment to free speech and anti-censorship policies. We ask for this to preserve art’s legacy.

It will come as no surprise that, to the question in the title – Should galleries and museums display offensive art? – my answer is an emphatic: Yes!


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