Fighting the Art Bullies

Fighting the Art Bullies

New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has created enormous consternation and publicity in his attempts to censor an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.


New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has created enormous consternation and publicity in his attempts to censor an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Although he suffered public rebuke recently in federal court, where his conduct was deemed a flagrant violation of the First Amendment, his technical approach–control of the purse strings–is unfortunately no anomaly. In Texas recently, some of the trustees of Kilgore College wanted to stop a student production of playwright Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and city and county politicians threatened to pull some $65,000 in public funding from the college if it went ahead with the staging. College president William Holda and director Raymond Caldwell stood fast against them and picketers whose signs protested “abuses” of tax dollars and declared that “God Hates Fags.” The production went forward, a treat, but two days before Halloween the county announced its trick: It is to cut $50,000 in grants to the college’s Texas Shakespeare Festival, whose artistic director is–Raymond Caldwell. Kushner wrote an eloquent letter of support to the cast, director and college president (whom he lauded privately as “rather heroic”), an adapted portion of which we publish below. The question of definitions and meaning in art is famously vexing–and should be, perhaps part of any work’s finer attributes–and raised by the subsequent pieces in this section as well.

All over the country, and all over the world, people who are afraid of new ideas, people whose faith is too shallow and too fragile to encounter any interrogatory spirit, people who do not scruple at using blackmail, threats of violence or even violence itself to silence voices different from their own–these people have waged a war against art in the name of decency, in the name of civic stability, in the name of God. But censoring art, even indecent art, isn’t decent; it’s thuggish, it’s unconstitutional, undemocratic and deeply unwise. Censoring art doesn’t promote civic stability; censorship promotes only the illusion of civic stability, the illusion of homogeneity; and the health of the state is consequently imperiled, because a healthy state needs vigorous, lively, pluralistic debate, not enforced acquiescence to a bullying majority. And as for God…

Well, my God is very, very different from the God worshiped in any church or synagogue or mosque whose Will it is that art, or free thought or speech of any kind, ought to be forbidden. I can’t imagine that a God who gave us the power to create, the powers of curiosity, empathy, analytic thinking and deep compassion, who gave us open hearts and the power of love, at the same time commands us to avoid the ideas and the art these powers produce. I can’t imagine that God has so little faith in our faith, and in our powers of discrimination and critical thinking, that we have to be kept in ignorance, sheltered like small children, to remain good.

* * *

In Bucharest, Romania, a few months ago, an angry mob attacked the theater where Angels in America was being presented and tried to burn the building to the ground. There’s less moral ground separating that mob from people who threaten to pull funding from a college or a theater festival as a way of stopping a production than the fund-pullers would care to think. In America we almost never face violence, or even threats of legal action directly against our persons, for the art we do–though of course the art that is silenced by other means, by threats of defunding, is frequently art that attempts to speak about the lives of people against whom discrimination and actual violence are routinely practiced. Those who wish to silence us have learned that they can attempt an end-run around the Constitution’s mighty edict against censorship by simply using money, from the state or from foundations and individuals, to force compliance with their convictions and beliefs. What they seek is no different from what that mob in Bucharest sought: a world in which people are afraid to make art that challenges convention, that says what may not have been spoken before. These people are bullies, and bullies must be defied.

Don’t get chuffed-up and fill the play with anger, which the attacks on your work may have generated; part of the strategy of the enemies of art is to create toxic environments in which the art, even if on display, can’t be properly received. Trust in the play, in your work and your talents, in your audience.

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