We are all, I am sure, familiar with the concept of “the chilling effect,” by which legitimate forms of expression are discouraged by fear of consequences such as censorship, lawsuit, or arrest. The chilling effect is one of, if the the most, dangerous consequences of censorship in any field, and particularly in regard to art, because it shrinks the area in which our ideas compete for recognition, slowing intellectual progress. Here it is important to recognize most emphatically that it does not matter if an individual, censored idea was meritorious; you’ve got to get through a lot of bad ideas to get to a good one.
It had seemed that the culture wars were largely over. Mapplethorpe, the leader of the pack, has been safely canonized, and Serrano wasn’t far behind. Round two was the Chris Ofili dust up, but by that point, the war was over, and Rudy Giuliani was left looking like a senile old man telling the art world to get off his lawn.
If these names all seem familiar to you, you (or perhaps the artists) have the culture wars to thank. There is something of a silver lining to the cloud of censorship, what I’m inclined to term a “micro-privilege.” To censor you, they have to say your name. In a world where everybody’s fighting for attention, to have someone pay enough attention to you to bother censoring your work, or attempting to do so, is in itself a sort of miniature victory. We could debate how well Mapplethorpe, Serrano, and Ofili would be known if not for their roles in the culture wars, but without a doubt it has only contributed to their reputations.
It mustn’t have been long after the first act of censorship that people started thinking that making one’s self a target for censorship could be an effective strategy for self-promotion. The generation that grew up in the 1980s must remember hearing, in hushed tones on the schoolyard, of a film called, “Faces of Death.” Like so many schoolyard rumors, it was the taboo nature of the film that formed the heart of its appeal. It was at times implied that it was illegal to possess, that it contained “snuff” footage of murders committed specifically to make the film, etc. These were untrue, but the film itself was promoted as being “Banned in 40+ Countries.” The effort at censorship was exaggerated, then recruited as an advertising slogan.
Back in 2010, Chicago-based performance artist Joseph Ravens was the center of a minor, local controversty (http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/this-guys-penis-is-a-work-of-art/Content?oid=1981925), pertaining to an issue of nudity in a storefront pop-up gallery. It was the kind of silly footnote that distracts from the work itself, as Joseph himself, I’m sure, would agree. Joseph and I have become friends and have worked together, and I take him at his word when he says that he never intended to create any controversy.
However, in the comments of the above-linked Reader article, one commenter posted a link to a film in which Ravens had appeared, entitled “Penis Demilo” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tm0Tbyig1NA). While the film was uploaded in 2010, and the copyright notice in the credits is to that year, it appears much older, perhaps late 1990s. The film was produced by the group Joy Farm, with whom Ravens has been working since 1993.
Ravens portrays an artist named Ennui, who has created a sculpture called Penis Demilo. The artwork was scheduled to be unveiled at the opening of Municipal Gallery. Protestors arrive (“I’m protesting about that filthy penis in there!”) and the decision is made to remove the piece. The protests, however, draw publicity, crowds of viewers arrive, and the gallery prepares to unveil the piece. A bomb threat is phoned in, and as the building is being evacuated, Ennui announces that, “If I cannot share my art with you, no one will ever see it” He topples the still-draped sculpture, which shatters into pieces and dust. Reporter Floss Mulligan reports, “Well, it looks as though he’s made the bold step into performance art.” The film concludes with a scene of Ennui paying the leader of the protestors and contracting them to protest again next month for his new piece, “Protein Smile.”
Cynics were quick to take Ravens’ participation in this film as evidence in support of the theory that the 2010 “dick in a window” controversy was itself a publicity stunt. Ravens himself told me that he had totally forgotten about the film, and I believe him. Instead, it seems to me the sort of coincidence that happens from time to time.
Perhaps I am sympathetic in this case because I have run into issues of censorship myself from time to time. In graduate school, one of my pieces was to be displayed in a window of the college’s gallery. A complaint followed, and the issue was put to the director of my graduate program, Grace Hartigan. I wasn’t present for the conversation, but according to several people present, she immediately agreed to remove the work. One of these friends called me, and so I was able to act pre-emptively. I dashed off a quick announcement, written in the voice of the college, announcing the need to censor the work. I covered the painting with a black sheet and hung the notice in front of it. Of course this made the college look bad, and the decision was made to remove the covering and allow the piece to be shown (accompanied by a denial of any attempt to censor the piece in the first place).
In an earlier incident, in undergrad at Humboldt State, an arguably more obscene piece was censored; my effort to drape the piece was in this case denied. Immediately upon my removing the piece, a friend purchased it, in part because of the controversy. The “Penis Demilo effect” was in play here. (My first experience with censorship occurred early in elemenary school; officials took my drawing of a man urinating as evidence that I was being molested by my parents, a totally false conclusion, and I had to spend a week in a foster home while the whole thing was sorted out.)
These issues, and in particular the Penis Demilo film, were on my mind as I watched the recent drama over The Interview play out. This was, apparently, a different case than the earlier fine art culture wars. Here, rather than alleged that a law was being broken or funds misused, Sony Pictures claimed to have been hacked, and then a threat was made that 9/11-type attacks would be directed at any theater showing the film. Major theater chains refused to show the film, a few indie theaters promised to show it as planned, then Sony pulled the release. Some theaters (the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, TX, for example) planned to show Team America in its place, then Paramount refused to license the showings of that film. Obama chimed in, telling Americans to “go to the movies,” echoing Bush’s 9/11 admonition that Americans “go shopping.”
Ultimately, The Interview was shown as video-on-demand. I got together with my wife, my sister, and a few friends, and we paid our three bucks or whatever and watched the thing. It was exactly what it had appeared to be in the initial, pre-scandal previews: a lackluster bromance against a backdrop of North Korea’s tragically comical flaws. It wasn’t particularly funny, but it had its moments. It was no Team America, but it was no Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, either.
I’ve heard cynicism similar to that around Ravens’ performance scandal in regard to The Interview. Was it all a publicity stunt? North Korea itself denied involvement in the hacking, though the FBI concluded that they had been at least partially behind it (a conclusion widely debated by other experts), resulting in US sanctions against North Korean interests. North Korea’s denial is itself puzzling, considering their threats as long ago as June of last year, promising to treat the film’s release as “an act of war.”
Regardless of who was responsible for the cyber attack and theater threats (which may have been by the same party, or perhaps others), a lot of people seem (on Facebook, at least) to consider it now to be their patriotic duty to see The Interview. I certainly felt compelled to watch it. Would I have, otherwise? Probably. I go to the movies a lot, and I mean this as distinctly opposed to “looking at film.” I enjoy a good two-nour nepenthe pretty regularly. But I certainly felt more compelled to see The Interview after being told that there were people who didn’t want me to see it.
The cynics probably go too far, though, in suggesting that Sony, themselves, may have fabricated the threats in order to drum up publicity for the film. It doesn’t seem to make economic sense. Sure, they managed some $15 million in streaming profits in the first four days (plus just under $3 million from the few independent theaters which showed the film), but with a $44 million budget, Sony is far from breaking even. They would have done far better had they allowed the theatrical release to go ahead, and there’s no evidence that there was any reason, other than the threats, to cancel the release.
From Joseph Ravens’ penis to the assassination of a baby-faced tyrant, anal fisting to a crucifix in urine, and let’s not forget Our Lady of the Jiggling Butt Cheeks, creative expression invariably steps on some toes. All the sensation created by controversy may bring with it some small benefits in terms of publicity. But if we forget the chilling effect it is to our peril. Even if you don’t care for the current comedy/painting/photograph of a dictator/buttfucking/saint, tolerating its censorship (even soft censorship such as a private donor threatening to withdraw funds) shrinks the envelope of exploration. The next time someone pitches a movie making fun of a dictator, the studios, remembering The Interview, make balk, even if the new movie has more potential than its predecessor did.
The same is true in the art world. If faculty, fearing for their jobs, refuse to support students in the face of threatened censorship by the University, those students will learn the lesson that some subjects cannot be discussed, some media can not be used, some ideas can not be expressed. This extends at every level of the scene, from a museum pulling a show due to criticism, or a coffee shop with a “no nudes” policy for the community artwork it allows on its walls. None of this is to say that only dirty work is worthwhile; indeed, shock is a well-worn strategy and much “offensive” work is in fact merely boring. But if we are to maintain an open forum for conversation, such works must be allowed to succeed or fail on their own merits, or lack thereof, rather than being preemptively excluded from discussion for failing to meet a lowest-common-denominator standard of decency.
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