- Editor’s Introduction
like many past issues of social research, this issue on “the fear of art” is based on talks given at a Social Research conference at the New School. “The Fear of Art,” our thirty-second conference, took place in February 2015 only weeks after the murderous attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, in which 12 people were killed by Islamist extremists. It was a chilling reminder of the ongoing fear of art.
Artists are imprisoned and exiled. Art is banned. Art is destroyed. All these acts give evidence of the power of images to unsettle, to speak truth to power, to question our cherished cultural norms or our ideas about what is sacred. But, most of all, they attest to the power of images, and it is the attractive power of images that makes them so politically potent.
Censorship of art and artists is a well known and recurrent feature of totalitarian regimes like China or Iran today, or the former Soviet Union and Nazi Germany not so long ago, but sadly it is also an all too familiar feature of democratic societies as well. One need only think of the uproar around the 1998 exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography at the Corcoran Gallery. Or the showing of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, which caused a furor in many of the places where it was exhibited and was destroyed on Palm Sunday 2011 when French Catholic fundamentalists attacked the photograph with hammers. Or, in 2011, the removal of a four-minute video, which included 11 seconds of an ant-covered crucifix, from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery’s first exhibit of gay and lesbian art due to pressure from anti-gay groups. Less well known and in some ways more shocking was the cancelation of A Child’s View from Gaza, an exhibit [End Page xxi] featuring 50 artworks by Palestinian children that was canceled by the Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland, California, in response to pressure from San Francisco Bay Area Jewish groups.
Calls for censorship, however, come not only from conservatives (fearing “the new” or social change and shifting values) but also from those one might consider progressives. This may be seen in the strong opposition to the work of Kara Walker from older, established African-American artists, or in the response of Chinese authorities to the work of the artist Ai Weiwei, whose art cannot be shown in China and who was imprisoned by Chinese authorities and beaten so badly that he suffered a near fatal brain hemorrhage. Ai Weiwei’s keynote presentation, video-recorded by him especially for the “Fear of Art” conference, is transcribed in this issue.
Of course, it is those with power, whether the leaders of totalitarian states, the politically and economically influential in democratic states, powerful church representatives, or even a small but vocal group in a community, and just as surely directors of museums and galleries, who have exercised their power to prevent free artistic expression and to interfere with our right to what we may wish to see.
What is it about images that cause anxiety and fear in a world in which they have become the coin of the realm and cannot be avoided? Is it a response to our own ambivalence toward the alternative visions these images suggest? Is it the anxiety of the new? While this may be part of the story it is surely not all of it. What is it that we are afraid of? What do we lose when images and their creators are censored? These are the subjects that were explored by the conference and are examined in this issue of Social Research.
“The Fear of Art” conference was cosponsored by the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, PEN American Center, and the India China Institute at the New School. The conference was made possible with generous support from Agnes Gund, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Larry Warsh, the Ford Foundation, and ArteEast. We are immensely grateful to all those who supported this conference and thereby made it and this special issue possible. [End Page xxii]