Calls for censorship and curbs on creative freedom are like plagues and riots: they are both cyclical and products of larger social ills. There are many conditions and circumstances that come together and give birth to a wave of censorship efforts. It seems in this country we are running at a rate of one ten to twelve year push every twenty-five or thirty years. The 30's, 50's and mid 80's through present were all periods during which fear and mistrust of expression were cultivated.
Sure, there are always little school committees now and then that engage in a quixotic war against Holden Caulfield, but large, organized national efforts come in waves. I feel that the respect with which a society treats it's arts is directly connected to it's self image and confidence. When the censors start crowing, you can guess that there are larger problems at the base of it. There is even the possibility that the censors themselves are (gulp) maybe the same people, along with their conservative philosophical brethren, that are responsible for some of the larger problems.
What conditions allow these efforts to find fertile ground? Citizens do not get pushed around for what they say or read when things are going well, so why does censorship bubble to the surface during a relatively peaceful time such as ours? Much of it is due to the fact that many people rise to power in our country and others by denouncing "them." "Them" can be the evil empire, the tribe over the next hill, the town next door, or an ethnic group within our community. It is a convenient, vague threat that can be delivered forcefully and often. Fear has always been an effective tool for social control. With the collapse of communism, many orators and "tough talkers" have lost their big evil. The sinister force they could take credit for keeping at bay cashed in, and now alot of folks need a new villain so they can continue to pound their fist. Enter artists.
It is easy to cast aspersions on the art community. They are always, you know, a little....weird. Not quite American, you know what I mean? If we held sport figures up to the same scrutiny as we do artists, there would be some pretty raunchy denunciations being done by Republican Senators on the floor of the Senate. Here in Boston, one of our baseball players admitted to being a sex addict, just to justify his voracious, extra-marital appetite, one of our football players threw a large butcher knife at his estranged wife, and another ball player is charged with statutory rape of a 14 year old girl. Any of these situations are more severe and damaging to the community than anything Pee-Wee has ever done in a movie theater.
I think that in our culture, there is a predisposition to persecuting artists. I think Pee-Wee got particularly harsh treatment because, for years, his whole character has poked fun at traditional, strong male types. Our country idolizes sports figures and big money movie stars more than it does artists, but uses a very soft noodle for disciplining the big-money stars. This double standard has books being taken off the shelves and stickers being put on albums, while kids have Terminator lunch boxes and families go to professional wrestling matches.
I find it odd that the censors are not out in front of a stadium when a bogus wrestling extravaganza is taking place, holding up signs about how it condones, glorifies, promotes and advocates violence? If we apply the PMRC Entertainment as Advocacy standard of interpretation to wrestling, aren't the wrestlers advocating that we give all our friends atomic kneedrops? Even though the wrestlers are introducing a new generation of kids to violence that is one step away from cartoons, I have yet to hear the public outcry about how they are morally seducing our children.
It is a paradox, because at the same time as legally we have more rights here than in any other country in the world, culturally we are under constant suspicion for not being patriotic. This country regards its artists as the kid that didn't grow up quite right. I don't mean our movie and TV stars. I mean people that are writing, filming, singing and dancing pieces that put our society under the closest possible scrutiny. In many different ways, everyone I talk to in the art community feels that although their work is heavily critical of ourselves politically or culturally, it is all presented with some hope of changing the circumstances that inspired it.
I recently read an article that quoted an official from a national education association as saying that the two qualities that he had seen decrease the most in the last ten years were curiosity and cooperation. Curiosity about new things, and cooperation with other kids. The expression of ideas, and a healthy art community are vital to reversing a decline such as this. The more we crush expression, and the narrower the spectrum of ideas our children are exposed to, the harder it will be to approach the problems of the future with innovative solutions that incorporate input from an increasingly diverse community.
The first step to resolving any issue is putting it on the table, and in some ways that is one of the most important roles art plays. Despite what the censor folks may say, expression in this country is all but free of malice. It is an odd time when artists are pegged as having broad-reaching social agendas (advocacy of sexual perversion, violence), when in fact they don't, and the censors claim to not have a larger social agenda, when they in fact very much do, and it is inherently un-American.