Censorship Is the Dirty Little Secret of the Art World

"Irreverent: A Celebration of Censorship," an exhibit curated by Jennifer Tyburczy, looks at the erased history of censored art.

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Feb 8 2015, 7:27pm

Video still by Michelle Handelman

Censorship is just the other side of curation: the selection, by a person in power, of what works to show or store, to hype or hide. Only the stupidest and most brutal kinds of censorship are visible, like when conservative politicians bludgeoned the Smithsonian into removing a piece by David Wojnarowicz from 2010's Hide / Seek show—thereby guaranteeing its proliferation on the internet and almost certainly hastening the (well-deserved) revisitation of Wojnarowicz's work that is currently underway.

Effective censorship is invisible. Its true power lies not in preventing the audience from seeing a certain work, but rather in preventing the audience from seeing the mechanisms of censorship in action. It is the hole that swallows itself.

Telling the stories of censorship is a tricky task, one that requires paying close attention to "gossip, innuendo, and traces of remnants," as Jennifer Tyburczy puts it. Tyburczy is the curator of Irreverent: A Celebration of Censorship, a mixed-media show that opens at Manhattan's Leslie + Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art on February 13. Tyburczy wanted to look at the many forms censorship takes, from ominous warning labels to axe-wielding pogroms, and in particular, the ways in which sex panic has been used to censor the work of queer people, women, and artists of color (and especially queer women of color).

The show includes infamously censored works, like the Wojnarowicz mentioned above, or Andres Serrano's History of Sex photos, which were attacked by armed neo-Nazis in Sweden in 2007. But it also shows works whose repression has attracted less notice, like Alma Lopez's Our Lady, which was censored in three separate art shows on two different continents.

I sat down with Tyburczy to discuss the show, censorship, and how museums might better handle challenging material.

VICE: How did this show come about?
Jennifer Tyburczy: The idea for the exhibition really grows out of my new book, Sex Museum: The Politics and Performance of Display. The book looks at the history of the museum as a site that has helped to forge categories of sexual normalcy and sexual perversity, from the secret museum in Pompeii, Italy, in the 18th century up until present day.

All museums have sexual messages already in them, but they are rendered invisible through their frequency. For example, we walk into an ethnographic museum and we see a diorama representing Native American family life. Oftentimes we are imposing our ideas of what family constitutes onto a Native American tribe that did not exist in the same paradigm. Or think about art museums and the prevalence of white female nudes. They never have warning signs before them. And yet they're all over the place. They are considered acceptable art consumption.

But this exhibition focuses on the past 30 to 40 years, and what I came to understand is that censorship happens in very diverse ways, but oftentimes it happens in secret. A lot of backdoor dealings.

Painting by Kent Monkman

How did you choose the works in the show? I'm sure there were a lot of options.
It's been a bit of a treasure hunt, not only to find the artists, but to get the works and learn the stories. Tracking down these stories proved the MO of the show itself: That these histories have been intentionally erased. One of the major messages I hope that folks take away from the exhibition is how sex has been used as a political tool to silence all kinds of minority voices, across the spectrums of race, gender, immigration issues, religious issues, and critiques of capitalism.

I really wanted to put especially women and artists of color at the center of this show, because they are the publics that are most often targeted, because of systemic racism and misogyny written into systems.

Do you have suggestions for curators who want to show work that might be described as challenging, or even obscene, by the standards of the communities where they live? Art should push boundaries, so how do we prepare our audience to receive that kind of provocation?
I think that comes down to the wall text. Of course you can't control what people read or how much they read, but I think if someone is viewing the work, then you can refer them to the context. When you walk into an art space, the ideal is the bourgeoisie eye that is trained to look at art and "get it." You really only encounter a main presentational wall text, and then you're on your own. So if you don't understand, you're in the wrong place.

I think art museums and art galleries should think more about the stories of the pieces themselves. What if we rethought of the art museum as a space, not only about aesthetics and "beauty" or "ugliness" or whatever, but about contextualizing the piece within its historical moment?

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