Censorship in Camouflage I: A Project about the Unexplored Aspects of Censorship

Discussion Series I, Summer 2002:


Panel II: The Censor Within

June 11, 2002.

Svetlana Mintcheva: Welcome to the panel on self-censorship, the second in a series of two panels organized to celebrate the re-launching of the File Room (www.thefileroom.org), an Internet archive of art censorship cases, created by Antoni Muntadas in 1994. The panels were co-organized by Muntadas, the National Coalition Against Censorship and Robert Atkins, a writer and critic who has been working on issues of art-censorship for a very long time.

When we were thinking about these panels we were taking our cue for defining censorship from the wide definition adopted in the File Room, which documents both governmental censorship and market censorship, and remains open to a range of different ways in which expression is repressed. While the legal definition of censorship limits it to government actions, speech is silenced in many other ways. It is the cases of government censorship that get the most visibility. However, there are certain types of censorship that are very hard to make tangible; they remind us that free expression is not solely guaranteed by the absence of restrictions on already existing speech. Obvious instances of repressed speech are only the tip of the iceberg, which includes the structural censorship of who has access to production, funding issues, personal and institutional considerations. In the previous panel on censorship and the marketplace we talked about funding pressures on artistic expression. Today we will discuss self-censorship and its origins in psychological coercions, institutional considerations, and political pressure. But first I would like to introduce my co-organizers Antoni Muntadas and Robert Atkins.

Antoni Muntadas: Last Tuesday I mentioned some personal reasons for starting The File Room. I think that some ways of censoring are not so evident. The title of the panels—Censorship in Camouflage—already suggests a hidden mode that’s sometimes difficult to define. We are all aware of censorship in the traditional sense, which has been around for centuries. I am referring to image, text, and sound eliminated from the public domain in authoritarian form and for so-called moral rules and reasons. This means that thousands of cases in different cultures appear to be the exercise of power and control in a physically evident and violent way. The goal of these panels is to address the sort of censorship that is present, but difficult to define, because the cases are too subtle, ambiguous and abstract to be called censorship in the traditional way.

We are confronting a situation where the issue is: “Is that censorship?” We need to identify cases and precise experiences in order to discuss them. The fact that certain aspects of repression are not defined, as well as the sophisticated and sometimes invisible strategies that the censors are using makes the situation more subtle and Machiavellian. We, as creators, narrow down the vision of projects in order to adjust to the general guidelines of institutional profiles, funding sources, curators’ aesthetics or audience expectations. We need to create a new word for this kind of censorship, in the same way that the word “gentrification” was created and used to define certain way of speculation in real estate where economics and corruption meet. I wonder if we need a new term without the concept of censorship to locate and address in more progressive ways how power structures are functioning today.

Svetlana Mintcheva: A rather utopian suggestion, perhaps—to find a word, which summarizes the current conditions of power visible and invisible. Yet it is truly an urgent task for us to describe how different economic and political factors intersect to put us in our respective places.

Robert Atkins: I’m going to speak briefly, I promise. Maybe that new term Antonio suggested isn’t so difficult to find. I like “chilling effect,” which we hear frequently in legal discourse and Supreme Court decisions. The most effective aspect of last week’s panel, I thought, was its open-endedness. It is always important to design these programs—as well as to create art—which is an investigation. Our goal last week was to reveal the economic complexity of the “chilling effect,” which only reinforces the status quo or current power relations. Some of the issues that arose last week concerned the fact that we exist in a culture of instability characterized by lots of screaming and lots of polarization. We also live in an amnesiac culture where history is erased. An example that was brought up was CETA—the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a federal program that in the 70’s had an enormous impact on community arts to the tune of $250 million per year, far more than the budget of the NEA has ever been. We ranged very broadly: We talked about foundations; we talked about lack of interest in the art world as an ecosystem or site of research and development. Ruby Lerner, a very interesting panelist from the Creative Capital Foundation, talked about the lack of interest on the part of foundations in gathering statistics so the status quo could even be considered—conditions which we, as progressive members of the so-called art community, want to change.

Svetlana Mintcheva: I have been thinking a lot about self-censorship, and the more I think about self-censorship the more complicated the issue gets, because it’s not only economic, philosophic or ethical, but also a highly political issue. So far, self-censorship remains a subject that has been relatively unexplored. This is perhaps because issues of self-censorship are frequently extremely personal and thus require a lot of courage and honesty to write and talk about. It is easier to write of how government suppresses creativity, or how a writer from the past has censored himself or herself, and much harder to look into one’s personal censors. I have had quite a few conversations with artists when they pointed out to me that censorship is far less of a problem than self-censorship. Nevertheless, when I ask for personal examples, the first reflex is to deny self-censorship – until one starts thinking of the choices one has to make in the creative process and all those multiple considerations that more or less consciously are part of it.

The one thing we agree upon when it comes to censorship is that it is bad. In just about every censorship incident I have dealt with those who decide to suppress something deny that they are censoring – instead, they claim to be protecting children or being sensitive to the values and beliefs of adults. In theory, we are all for free speech. Yet we all think there are limits to civilized speech and behavior. The negative connotation censorship carries affects the notion of self-censorship. If censorship is bad, self-censorship is worse. As the German poet, essayist, and publisher Hans Magnus Enzensberger argues, “[s]elf-censorship outruns in elegance and shrewdness everything the most vicious (censor) could imagine. Its target (often met) is the prohibition to think. Whoever believes that they are immune, is the first victim.” The South African writer J. M. Coetzee notes that the interiorization of the figure of the censor into the psychic life of the writer “bring[s] with it humiliation, self-disgust, and shame.” Censorship, writes Coetzee, “looks forward to the day when writers will censor themselves and the censor himself can retire.”

Both of these accounts assume self-censorship is the interiorization of the repressive voice of the political censor. After September 11, 2001, this type of self-censorship has acquired even more relevance in the United States. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Dan Rather said what we all knew but never thought we would hear especially from him, namely, that access to information has been severely limited, and that fear keeps journalists from asking tough questions. A fear that Rather compared to the fear of the flaming tire put around the necks of dissenters in South Africa. Only now the flaming tire is the accusation of anti-patriotism.

It is true that self-censorship most visibly affects people working under repressive political regimes. When it is the interiorized voice of political repression, it indeed paralyzes thought. However self-censorship could also originate in imagining the critical voices of one’s friends, in financial woes, psychological struggles, social and ethical concerns, and the need to protect family members, as well as oneself. Questions of what to express and what to repress are issues we all grapple with every day. It could be an issue of "political correctness,” of loyalty to one’s group, as well as fear of ostracism, fear of not being understood. And, to repeat Enzensberger, “Whoever believes that they are immune, is the first victim.”
After September 11, self-censorship has not only been about the government suppressing information, it has been about sensitivity and appropriateness. True, sensitivity was frequently overzealous, as in the Boston Symphony canceling a production of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, or the recent Armory Show exclusion of a work where the attack on the World Trade Center was shown in a computer game context. Yet, being sensitive to the feelings of others is not altogether a bad thing. When does sensitivity begin to stifle?  And, anyway, can one ever speak freely? The fact of the matter is, we don’t just speak to let something out, we speak to communicate something to others, to affect them in a certain way. Expression is a performative act: It has certain goals. Rather than speaking freely, we speak tactically. Thus when we speak we have to know who we are speaking to and vary what we say accordingly. Language, after the collapse of the tower of Babel, will never be transparent again, what we say is always an approximation of what we mean (or think we mean); worse, in the surrounding noise our expression is further transformed.  We have to adjust what we say to get what we want, whether that be money or social change, love or peace.
And then, finally, there is the question of ethics. Photographer Oliviero Toscani (Bennetton commercials designer) recently said in an interview that creativity should be beyond norms, beyond morals. “To think that one has gone too far – that means one has already accepted society’s norms. It is already a form of self-censorship.” Our concern for ethical principles necessarily constraints us, puts limitations on our freedom to speak. In the far extreme it leads to the absurdities of political correctness gone amok, to a much smaller degree, however, it is what makes life in society relatively livable. But then, the temptation to transgress, the seduction of Milton’s Satan is always there, to remind us of the dangerous freedom that we sacrifice all the time to the civilized comforts of sociability.

Now I would like to introduce our first speaker, Alan Schechner, an artist with a body of work dealing with the Holocaust, recently part of the notorious Mirroring Evil show in the Jewish Museum in New York. He works with a range of issues, a lot of them of social and political concern, including memory, obscenity, and the limits of art.

Alan Schechner: I must admit that when I first got invited to participate in this panel I went through a long process of trying to psychoanalyze myself for the ways in which I censor my work. I think I did this for a couple of reasons, one was the realization that there was going to be a psychoanalyst on the panel alongside me, and that that kind of analysis would be part of this evening’s discussion. The other reason was that I don’t think of myself as an artist who self-censors, at least not consciously, if anything I think of myself as the opposite to that, as an artist who often flies in the face of conventions of taste or appropriateness as a way or a strategy for getting over a message. So if this was my image of myself as an artist it was obvious to me that only through psychoanalytical methods could a repressed cause for self-censorship be found. Fortunately for everyone concerned I soon gave this up, but I think the fact that I think of myself as an artist who doesn’t self-censor made me really engage with this topic and made me probe deeply into an area I have up to now largely ignored. The reasons for this non-engagement with the issue of self-censorship could be understood on a number of levels: first, the difficulty to define self-censorship; second, the difficulty in either recognizing it or admitting to it; and third, the fact that I personally have had to deal with issues of outside censorship in relation to my work and thus that is where my focus has been.

I am not sure if the idea for this discussion was hatched prior to the terrible events of September 11th, but either way it is impossible not to address these issues of self-censorship without that event casting a large and ominous shadow over this discussion. One of the repercussions of September 11th is that it brought into question one of the basic cornerstones of America’s definition of itself. For me as an artist whose work often addresses Holocaust representations, I was hit very early on by the links that were being made between the Holocaust and the attacks on the World Trade Center. This became very apparent to me specifically in relation to some of the attacks on my work from the controversy surrounding the Mirroring Evil exhibition at the Jewish Museum. In that exhibition I included a work called Self Portrait at Buchenwald—It’s the Real Thing, in which I had collaged myself holding a Diet Coke can onto Margaret Bourke-White’s famous photograph of a group of survivors of the Buchenwald concentration camp on the day of that camp’s liberation in 1945.

Then I read this in the The Jewish Week: “"It’s the Real Thing" has become a flashpoint for both sides. For a protest planned by Rabbi Zev Friedman of Rambam Mesivta High School in Lawrence, N.Y., one ninth-grader made a sign by removing Schechner’s superimposed image from the concentration camp and replacing it by the burning Twin Towers to illustrate the museum’s insensitivity to the victims of trauma.” (To see these images visit http://www.theshoah.org/efforts.html) Other artworks from the exhibition, including Christine Borland’s sculptural installation, which included busts of Josef Mengele, were similarly criticized. Another quote: "Basically, this says the emperor has no clothes," says Menachem Rosensaft, who is a founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. "They wouldn’t think of putting busts of Osama bin Laden at Ground Zero. The museum should tell us what’s the difference." This response, which I would argue is largely unconscious, of an instinctive linking of the events of September 11th to the Holocaust does not stand up to even the most basic historical analysis. The only real linkage that can be made between the two is that in both events innocent people died, but that is true of thousand of other events.

Whatever the historical truthfulness of this linkage, it does symbolize something else and something that is far more ominous for artists working in this country and that is the construction of a moral absolute around September 11th similar to the construction of a moral absolute around the Holocaust. So my first question is: How do artists work under this shadow of moral absolutes? How is this moral absoluteness internalized by artists and in turn how does that effect what it is they may or may not say, and how they may or may not say it?

Because of this linkage, it may be useful to look at some of the discourses surrounding the Mirroring Evil exhibit as a way to see how self-censorship is enforced. Michael Kimmelman, in an article in the New York Times that preceded the opening of the show, openly advocated self-censorship. He wrote "Leafing through the catalog of Mirroring Evil, I noticed that, by way of providing bona fides for the art, an essay cites Gerhard Richter, the important German painter. In the 1960’s Richter juxtaposed photographs of tangled corpses from the death camps with pictures clipped from pornographic magazines as part of his vast compendium of scavenged images called "Atlas." The juxtaposition seemed to ask: Where is the line between historical inquiry and obscene gaze? And are Holocaust images respectable pornography? The catalog failed to note, however, that "Atlas" is really a kind of continuing public diary in which Richter reveals the sources that he has contemplated turning into paintings but does not always use. He ultimately declined to use the Holocaust. He decided it would be cheap and obvious.”

In other words artistic freedom allows the artist to try things out in the safe and relatively anonymous context of the sketch book, but the moment you go outside of the sketch you become "cheap and obvious" i.e. it is no longer good art. So the role of self-censorship is really, according to Kimmelman, to control the quality of the art. No self-censorship = no quality.

Others were less open in their call for outright censorship in the name of quality, but used another tactic instead, that of context. The art, it was argued in numerous articles and interviews, was in bad taste, but we are not a society that supports open repression of art works. All we ask is that you don’t show it here. New York, it was argued, was home to too large a community of Holocaust survivors, and the exhibition of the work would be too painful for them. So here the call to self-censorship was not based on the quality but geography: Do the work, show it if you want, just not here.

The trouble with absolutism is the time and the place are never right. Or at least never right for socially aware and radical political artists. And this is an important point because all images exist in social, political and historical contexts and as such all images are ideological, they are being used, all the time, and being used for a variety of different agendas whether it be justifying the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, or the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, or the invasion of Lebanon etc., etc. And just as Holocaust images are used, the images of Sep 11th are being used too. So, for example, it’s fine to reference the World Trade Center attacks in a multi-million dollar advertising slot during the Superbowl as long as you reference renewal, rebuilding, the American spirit and the fact that you will overcome. In both cases the message we are getting is very clear: The use of the images is allowed but only for certain agendas.

The deeming of what is and what is not appropriate, the limits of permissibility, apply primarily to politicized images. So for example, prior to September 11th, films including terrorist attacks on America, New York City or even the World Trade Center were permissible because they were apolitical. So, on September 10th Die Hard 2 was fine, by September 12th however it had become politicized and when something is politicized society sets about limiting that kind of speech. In the same vein we could look at child nudity that was not an issue in Western Art a hundred years ago, but is now and thus a limit is placed on social discourse, including for example the ability to take and process images of your children bathing or running naked around the house. Here is an example where a large segment of the population who do not define themselves as artists choose to self-censor. Similarly cultural conventions in Western culture stop us from taking pictures of our dead.

Assuming that I am not in some denial about my ability to bypass or be largely unaffected by the issue of self-censorship, the question that needs to be asked is: How is it that I feel that I don’t self censor, how do I bypass it? I believe that the primary reason I am able to do this by basing my work on and referencing real life events. In Obscenity Study 3 (http://dottycommies.com/holocaust03.html), for instance, I took the famous image of a young boy, hands above his head, being herded out of the Warsaw Ghetto by Nazi soldiers, and manipulated the image so that the boy and one of the Nazi guards overseeing his expulsion appeared naked. In a recent web project called Jewish antichrist.com I am asking my audience to submit themselves as possible candidate for the antichrist providing an image and personal details as well as the characteristics they have that make them a suitable applicant for the position. (see www.jewishantichrist.com)

How can I justify these projects, why did not the self-censor inside step in and deem them beyond the pale of public decency and fit only for the sketchbook filed under sick ideas? The answer is I believe that all three examples reference real life events. Because they reference real life events it allows me the latitude to touch on the untouchable talk about the untellable, image the unimaginable. In the referencing of the real I believe the problem of self-censorship is largely bypassed.

Before I finish let me throw at you some of the other questions that came up for me in the process of putting this paper together. What is the difference between self-censorship and editing? My rather simplistic answer is; if the censorship is brought to bear because of politicized content, it is self-censorship, if the editing is about formal issues it is not self-censorship.

What is the difference between self-censorship and strategy? And by strategy I mean either by using a coded visual language or by choosing when where and to whom to show an image, something that is increasingly difficult in our globally-connected and media-saturated world? Are there times when some kinds of self-censorship work to the advantage of the artist; when the coded/censored language of artworks works better than the uncensored?

I went to art school in the 80’s and 90’s where an understanding of issues of race, culture, gender and sexual identities was central to my education. Can I as a Jewish man claim the right to talk about the Holocaust in my work? What if I was not Jewish? Could I still talk about it? Can I deal with issues outside of my specific identities as Jewish, male, British, heterosexual whatever? Where is the line between cultural sensitivity, political correctness and self-censorship?

Going back then to where I started on this paper, contemplating psychoanalysis, I would argue that it may be through a process of psychoanalysis that I may uncover ways in which I repress, censor, and edit out elements in my work but that they are largely intangible and of limited importance because in my opinion—and permit me to end on a truism—self-censorship is only important when that which is being censored matters politically.

With thanks to Allesandro Imperato who through a series of discussions help clarify many of the issues in this paper.

Svetlana Mintcheva: Thank you, Alan Schechner, for raising all these really important questions – of political enforcement, of self-censorship versus strategic expression, of cultural sensitivity. We will return to these issues in the discussion. And now I would like to introduce Dr. Janice Lieberman, a psychoanalyst in practice in New York, who has lectured extensively on art and psychology.

Janice S. Lieberman: As a psychoanalyst I want to address the intrapsychic and ask: What are the conscious and especially unconscious mechanisms that result in self-censorship? How does the artist’s psyche anticipate others’—persons’ and societies’—reactions and alter and/or omit what might be expressed in its original form in a different context? That is, what goes on within the artist’s psyche, what has already been internalized, put in place that results in self-censorship? Is the self-censoring artist like Woody Allen’s Zelig—or what we call in my field an “as if” character—whose personality automatically takes on the colors of those around him, like camouflage? George Orwell noted that “circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks his whip, but the really well trained dog is the one that turns his somersault when there is no whip.”

I ask: To what extent is the artist aware of his audience when he creates his work? Some may be exquisitely tuned to the body language, to the look in the eye of others and limit themselves to the detriment of their work. Some, on the other hand, may be so narcissistic that they are completely unaware of the other, the other serving merely as a mirror reflecting their own grandiosity. Picasso, for example, was in his personal life completely blunt and insensitive, a character trait that served his art at that particular time. He created what he wanted to without censoring himself. Jackson Pollock similarly was uncaring about the public and created something completely new.

So what goes on inside the psyche that creates self-censorship? And I ask, is self-censorship, conscious or unconscious, deceptive? Is it lying?

Self-censorship is rooted in the use of defense mechanisms. Our everyday defense mechanisms lead us to distort what we think, say or do in order to protect ourselves from facing what is too uncomfortable to face. We deceive ourselves all the time in myriad ways. Unconscious denial or disavowal of what we know or would want to express automatically eliminates thought and actions. Reaction formation is a mechanism that leads us to think or do the very opposite of what we wish to do in order to fight against it. Rationalization and intellectualization enable us to turn more basic and more primitive thoughts and actions into higher-level behaviors that mask their origins. We repress (forget) or suppress (keep under the surface).

We also avoid speaking about or facing certain truths with omissions and lies. In my book, The Many Faces of Deceit: Omissions, Lies and Disguise in Psychotherapy, I wrote about omissions on a conscious, preconscious and unconscious level: leaving out what is threatening to the self or to others or just blatantly lying.

All of the above are ways in which artists consciously or unconsciously shape their work. Now I ask: Why are some artists able to rebel and make this rebellion the essence of their art and why do others submit to the social order? I think that this has to do with the unconscious reasons for becoming an artist in the first place. To me, and there are those who will disagree, the artist by definition makes something new and changes and challenges the social order. I think that yielding to the judgments of others reflects a conflict about being an artist. The conflict can be so great that the artist may be blocked in doing his work or to the point that he cannot do his work. His conflicts may be about a fear that any expression will be an expression of rage, or his conflicts may be about a fear of success and its various symbolic meanings. Or a fear of others’ envy, or a fear of exhibiting himself (important sources of why some artists’ cannot show or sell their work).

The need for some self-censorship: As a writer myself, I write in order to communicate to others, not just for myself. When I write I am acutely aware of my audience. I want my work to be published and reviewed. I want my books to be purchased. I therefore cannot write everything that is in my head. I also must disguise the identity of my patients who I write about. So I must be adept at a kind of creative deception, which is self-censorship.

Sometimes I should censor myself and due to ignorance as to who my audience will be I do not. For example, a number of years ago I presented a paper on Arshile Gorky and his proclivity to lie. I spoke in passing of his adolescence, in which his family in Armenia were victims of the Turkish genocide, something I had read as a fact in many books about Gorky. I was unaware that a group of Turks acted as watchdogs over all academic references to these historic events. One such person interrupted me at the start in such a way that it was impossible to read the entire paper. In subsequent presentations I decided to censor myself and did not refer to the Turks in this way. This war between the two countries was incidental to my topic and I wanted to talk about it free of this interference.

On the other hand, I quite consciously wrote a negative review of a book by a noted and much revered art critic. I thought it was a nasty and dyspeptic book and said so. I was surprised that the journal editor, a friend of the critic, agreed to publish it. But the art critic then took me on and publicly exposed my lack of advanced degrees in art history, something I did not enjoy, to say the least. So we choose our battles and our wars.

In my daily work as a psychoanalyst with patients and students I censor myself all the time. It would be quite harmful if I did not. I would not have any patients if I told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The art of my work has to do with timing, tact and dosage of “the truth.”

So what about here, at the New School? Let me illustrate what I am talking about. I will not censor myself with the following comments. My reading of you as an audience is that you will disagree with some of what I have to say and I will be unpopular. You will avoid eye contact with me and not want to invite me here again.

I at times feel that certain artworks should not have been made in the first place, for example the photographs Sally Mann took of her naked children. I feel they should not have been sold, shown in public or published. I feel that schoolchildren should not be taken to see certain artworks in museums, works that arouse overwhelming feelings. Some works of Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin come to mind. I found several works in the Jewish Museum’s current exhibit Mirroring Evil to be not only trivial pieces of art but feel that they perpetuate negative stereotypes about Jews. But, then, I loved the Sensation show. I like and have written about Serrano’s Morgue Series, yet I find his Sex Series and Piss Christ to be puerile. However, if adult audiences want to look at them, why not?

I imagine that most of you disapproved of the first four sentences and approved of the last two, all honest but inconsistent perhaps from a political point of view. I am risking your wrath – would I say what I did in another setting? Am I being aggressive and provocative by not censoring myself or, if punished for my honesty and accurate self-expression, am I being just masochistic?

Is self-censorship lying? It has been said that everyone tells lies all day long. If not people could not get along. Do you think, as Harvard philosopher Sissela Bok wrote, that lying is a deadly virus in our society? David Nyberg wrote an interesting book in 1993 called The Varnished Truth: Truth Telling and Deceiving in Ordinary Life, in which he disagreed with Bok and concluded that it is entirely adaptive to lie.

So I ask more questions than I have answers and look forward to your thoughts on this matter.

Svetlana Mintcheva: Thank you Janice Lieberman, for a wonderfully provocative talk, which so well performs the pressures to self-censor. And now I would like to introduce Leeza Ahmady, a curator of Afghani descent.

Leeza Ahmady: As a curator and educator, I am glad to be speaking about self-censorship, which I find a real phenomenon of our world and related to what I call the "social program." The "social program" constitutes the ideological, political, economical and psychological behavior of a given society. The reality is that no modern person is divorced from the social group, which is why I think we are all impacted by self-censorship. Our desire to fit in is so profound that our subconscious adheres to self-censorship as a defense mechanism against social alienation.

I would like to use myself as an example when talking about censorship rather than pointing away from myself. When I immigrated to the US, I was thirteen-years old. I found myself having to adapt to a whole new "social program," a very multi-cultural and multi-linguistic one, which caused me to behave in certain ways. I felt safer telling people that I was Persian. It appeared more acceptable. Possibly because people didn’t know too much about it, even though it is a requirement in history classes. It was interesting to say Persian, because it baffled a little, it was more mysterious and abstract.

In college, I was exposed to the idea of identity and culture pride and how that was valuable. I found it safer to say I was from Afghanistan. Furthermore, I indulged in it, because it shocked people who then said, “Oh, I thought you were South American.” It was interesting to see their different responses. One of the things I indulged in was the "Third-World-victim" story, telling people how two superpowers, the USA and the USSR, played their game of soccer, using Afghanistan as their bloody field to score goals. That was my rebellious stage.

To come back to the present, when September 11th occurred, I really decided I was going to be very positive about this, I was going to be a major example and then I realized that when people would ask me “where are you from?”—and there is all this news about Afghanistan, everyone knows where it is and I couldn’t capture the attention with exoticism or mystery—it took me a minute to respond. I would frequently laugh and say, “I am from someplace that is really popular right now,” and then wait for their reaction and say, “Afghanistan.” I made it OK for myself to finally say where I was from. I teach a dance class of dances from India, Iran, and Afghanistan—after September 11th, in my [promotional] e-mails I took Afghan out and put in Persian dance instead. It took me a few months before I could stop doing that. I decided I could be an example correcting the ideas the media was inculcating about what it meant to be Afghani.

Art as self-expression is not safe from the machinery of the "social program." In fact, it has developed its own. Let’s think of the institutionalization of art and its effect on artists in relation to self-censorship. During my practice as an independent curator, I often wondered what is modern art, what is contemporary art, and who says so. My title as a curator gives me the power to select which artists to work with, which means that in the case of my own shows, it is I who decide what art is. Yet, the real haunting question has been: What activates my choices? Working with artists from diverse backgrounds helps to look for a common denominator that connects contemporary artists and I have always been curious about how works are categorized. The common denominator for contemporary artists is that they have been trained to speak the language of art. The language of art spoken by those who study and practice it has been developed by the museum, gallery, or the MFA program here in the West. Artists from diverse parts of the world are compelled to express themselves through a language established in the West in order to be accepted by the establishment.

All these artists around the world have to adhere to a definition of art created in the West. They could express their own cultural sensitivity and political views as long as they fit the Western definition of art, which reigns in the institutions. I will show you the work of an Afghan artist—an installation. Installation art is a form in which artists from around the world feel compelled to work. My personal feeling is that this is because that makes them feel accepted. Installation art is highly celebrated by the art world. This installation is a carpet made out of rice, carrots and raisins and it is related to the idea of the nomad: The nomad moves from place to place just as this piece can be removed and recreated elsewhere. It is beautiful, both visually and conceptually, but I would like to ask, if this artist had created this work in a village in Afghanistan and not in her studio in Brooklyn what would this work look like? Or what medium would qualify as acceptable if she had no reference to Western contemporary art; if she didn’t have access to 300 or so Chelsea galleries? Surely, the materials, the idea of the carpet and the nomad, point to her own cultural background, but we can’t really help wondering about the influence of Western education on her idea of art. Can someone who has no notion of installation art accept this work? It is interesting to think about how the institutionalization of art has affected artists and how it makes them self-censor.

Svetlana Mintcheva: Thank you Leeza Ahmady for a very interesting presentation, so open about the personal pressures to self-censor. Our last speaker is Charlotta Kotik, a curator of contemporary art in Brooklyn Museum of Art, and also a member of the board of Gotlieb City Foundation for the Arts and adviser on art projects in the Czech Republic.

Charlotta Kotik: The history of censorship itself is amazingly interesting, but I am not going to talk about it, because you know about it already. It’s one enormous and magnificent power play, which started thousands of years ago and still goes on.

I grew up in Czechoslovakia and went through a very complex maze of censorship. This taught me that censorship and self-censorship could be largely avoided. Artworks which were done in Czechoslovakia during the years of censorship were very refined and spoke to people in a concealed way, but the message was rather clear and was heard very loudly. Ultimately censorship had led us to a very refined way of expressing our ideas.

After 1989, obviously censorship was largely abolished and different kinds of economic censorship came into power and affected art production and consumption. The attendance of theaters, museums and galleries dropped tremendously, because art was no longer a connection of minds trying to find a way of understanding and transmitting messages. There was no longer a need to express certain ideas in that concealed way. It is very sad to see that people do not create works so much out of an inner necessity and the need for expression but rather for the market, for sale. Money rules. As difficult as it was during the Communist regime, there was a certain purity in those who were trying to express things—money took over with a vengeance and spoiled many things. Nevertheless, during the time of heavy censorship in the 1950’s there were many people who were saying “we cannot do this, we cannot do that, it’s impossible.” Then there were people who could do this and that and could take the consequences. Obviously self-censorship is a very individually differentiated thing. Sometimes I ask myself whether we shouldn’t call it “spineless behavior” instead of self-censorship, because I find that one can really do a lot under difficult circumstances. It’s a personal choice.

I was in Prague recently. There is currently an exhibition in the Prague Castle called Politikum, which claims to be about political art. There was an open call for submissions and they received quite a few submissions both from individual artists and artists’ collectives. One of the artists’ collectives submitted two proposals—one of them to mount the inscription “Kunst Macht Frei” (“Art sets you free”) on the main gate of the Castle. Obviously this was intended to emulate the “Arbeit Macht Frei,” the infamous inscription on the entrances to concentration camps. The other piece they wanted to do was to mount throughout the castle the inscription “Zimmer Frei”—“a room to let,” which appears on many houses through the Czech republic wanting to attract visitors from Germany. The inscription also refers to the confiscation of the properties of the ethnic Germans in the Czech Republic after the Second World War. That history is very complex, because the Sudetian land, which was a part of the Czech Republic in prewar times, very early on, in the mid 1930’s, proclaimed its total allegiance to Hitler. It was an area, which was used against the Czech Republic and against the rest of Europe as a breeding ground of Nazism. The Czech inhabitants of that particular area had to move out very early, they left all their possessions and were driven out. After the War the German population was asked to leave. Many years later, the descendents of the German population that left are asking for a return of all the properties that had been confiscated or given up.

By bringing attention to this particular political situation, which is brewing on both sides of the border within the Czech and German republics, the artists chose to highlight something very volatile. Nevertheless, they showed only the German aspect. Did they allude to what was happening at the beginning of the War or in the late 30’s in those areas? Ultimately, the presentation of the “Zimmer Frei,” which was documented by the photos of the decaying houses of the ethnic Germans, was exhibited. “Kunst Macht Frei” was not exhibited, because the office of the President decided not to have this thing and they talked to the artists and tried to make some kind of amendments, nevertheless the artists got very upset, because they considered this censorship. In certain ways it was, but I want to pose a question: Is there something like sensitivity to others?

I am myself from a family that was very involved politically prior to, during and after the war. Part of the family died during the war, my husband’s Jewish grandfather returned from the concentration camps by a miracle. I was a little uneasy about the Prague exhibition and found that it was verging on propaganda. I think that art has to be more universal; it has to encompass the views of the larger group, not only one group. Because if it becomes one-sided I am afraid it loses universality, which is needed for art to give us new knowledge and new ways of looking at things, and turning into political propaganda, which ultimately cuts the edge of the artistic presentation. So I would like to propose this as a topic for discussion.

Svetlana Mintcheva: Thank you, Charlotta Kotik. It certainly appears that the issue of self-censorship, similarly to censorship, is closely related to the question of how we define art. I would now like to open the discussion to questions and comments from the audience.

Excerpts from the discussion:

Question from the audience: Leeza Ahmady, I was interested in the shifts of your chosen “identity” as a new immigrant and why you consider that to be self-censorship.

Leeza Ahmady: However you put it, this is self-censorship. Afghanistan was pretty popular in the 80’s, because it was at war with Russians. But I was thirteen years old and it was not a very fashionable place to say you are from in that age group. There are various things that we do, because we want to avoid social alienation. And I was trying to fit into this all-new society, and in part what I said was true, because Afghanistan used to be a part of the Persian Empire. At the same time it was not only that—Iranians and Persians are much more established in USA. They are doctors, lawyers, big-businesspeople, especially in Queens and Long Island, they have huge houses. It helped my image. At that time I didn’t think about these issues, but if you really want to be honest about it, I think it came down to that.

Alan Schechner: I think that concerns the model of strategic self-censorship. And I can think here of an example in which working within the realms of self-censorship in a strategic way actually worked to the advantage of the artist. In Israel representations of the Palestinian Flag in public are forbidden. The Palestinian Flag is red, green, black, and white. A Palestinian artist, trying to bypass this external censorship, painted watermelons that are also red, green, black and white. These images were still banned by the Israeli authorities but in the process the artists revealed the shortsighted stupidity of the Israeli ban. By censoring himself he revealed the idiocy of external censorship. There’s a strategic element, which can be sometimes utilized.

Robert Atkins: Alan, when you spoke of self-censorship you created the illusion that we are free agents. However—and I don’t know about you, Janice, but both Charlotta and Alan are representatives of institutions—I can’t believe that you never had a student come to you demanding an A, Alan, and that you never stopped yourself from saying what first came to your mind. And Charlotta, what happened with you at the Brooklyn Museum, in terms of Sensation and other controversial exhibitions you’ve been involved with. In other words, I’m curious about the place of compromise in our interfaces with institutions.

Charlotta Kotik: Once you work in the institution you compromise by the simple fact that you work in the institution. It is just part of the game. The question is how deeply you want to go compromising yourself, because I still feel that there are ways to be honest about the things. You just have to take consequences, which sometimes are not very pleasant. It does not mean that you lie, which I find to be unacceptable.

Alan Schechner: I was not thinking about teaching, in relation to teaching there is a different agenda. I am dealing with different museums and galleries, and they obviously have their own agendas. The stuff that comes out for me out of that is where self-censorship ends and editing begins. Or what the distinction is between self-censorship and making strategic decisions. And again it seems to me it’s all about politics, for me anyway. So if I censor something, because I feel the content is too political, then that would be self-censorship and that is what I didn’t find myself doing. If I did something to fit into the context of a certain museum or their agendas or slightly tweak something, maybe formally, but don’t compromise the message, that would be acceptable to me.

Question from the audience: There is an issue raised—always when it comes to artistic representation—of the tension between presentation—of self, ethnicity, gender—and  re-presentation. Then there are the gatekeepers, the museum or the market, deciding what is acceptable. The idea that art has to be universal should be considered in that context. This idea belongs to a particular moment of time and itself is a kind of unacknowledged method of censorship: It suggests that things, which emanate from particular viewpoints, are somehow less legitimate or that somehow they are propagandistic.

Charlotta Kotik: I think things always emanate from a certain viewpoint. But I think that viewpoint should be balanced, and I think that is where exhibition design or gate-keeping comes into play: You choose that work and you show it, but you also explain. What was interesting in the Prague exhibition was that there was a review in the Prague Post, the English paper there, saying that it would have been great if the works were put into context and there were labels explaining them, because it was basically conceptual art. I think the point of view expressed with “Zimmer Frei” was totally legitimate at that point in history. Nevertheless, it would have been very good also to know what the work was a response to and how the whole problem came into being.

Question from the audience: It is strange and disturbing how the Brooklyn museum handled its single most  political show in a long time – the Leon Golub show. That show had very low-key publicity and it was the only show to not even have a banner. That I consider an instance of institutional self-censorship.

Charlotta Kotik: I have to say that we were struggling financially so much during the show, that we simply didn’t have the money. You might say that was a choice and it is true that choices are always made. It would have been great to have a banner. We desperately tried to raise more money for the publicity, but unfortunately certain things just went undone.

Question from the audience: Isn’t there also a dimension of self-censorship that is legitimate self-protection or protection of others?

Svetlana Mintcheva: From a certain perspective we all self-censor: Whatever we say, we cannot speak freely. And then there are degrees. Am I saying all that always comes to me? No, because I want to get certain results, speaking all that I want to say could very well undermine these results. We speak tactically, not freely. It’s not about something that is inside erupting outside; it is about me interacting with the world, tying to get something done.

Question from the audience: How would we make the distinction between editing and self-censorship?  Editing is not necessarily self-censorship. To me censorship implies the imposition of something from the outside, a reaction of fear.

Leeza Ahmady: I discovered in myself that it is both external forces and how you digest them and how they sit in your internal context. And I do think that truly if you look within yourself, you can distinguish when you are editing and when you are not, when it’s actual self-censorship. I don’t think it’s a mysterious thing to tell the difference.

Question from the audience: I am curious about Alan Schechner’s piece in terms of the commercialization and exploitation of the Holocaust.

Alan Schechner: I think that brings up interesting issues about cultural ownership in terms of censorship. Is it OK for me as a Jewish man to use those images? Because growing up I assumed that they were mine, that they belonged to me and initially I didn’t think twice.

When I was serving in the Israeli army I became very much aware of the uses to which the Holocaust was put. The Israeli Prime Minister made a speech in which he said, “We have to attack Lebanon, because if we don’t attack Lebanon, it’s going to be another Treblinka.” And I became very aware of how the Holocaust is being used and manipulated for political reasons. The act of me going in and placing myself inside the image was trying to make that manipulation explicit. One of the interesting things for me is that within the museum that was not talked about, within the catalogue this was not talked about, because the Jewish Museum is uncomfortable with talking about the Jewish occupation of the Palestine and the Lebanon War. I have my explanation of what the image is about, and the museum had its own agenda and that agenda didn’t fit into mine. There were divisions within the institution. Initially the idea was to move forward in a certain way, but then the board of the trustees put pressure on the director. The internal politics of the institution muddled the message of the exhibition. I was out of the exhibition for a little while, then I was in a corridor, and then they brought me back in and turned me against the wall for a while. There were all these warnings. And that’s where the censorship happened.

Svetlana Mintcheva: Thank you, Alan, thanks to Sondra Ferganis and the Vera List Center for Art and Politics for hosting this discussion, and thank you all for coming. I hope we will continue our conversation online or in other forms. As Robert Atkins pointed out earlier tonight, the most effective aspect of last week’s panel was its open-endedness. I am certain the questions raised tonight will stay with us and provoke many future conversations.