Art and Censorship

Visual art in public and private galleries

Visual art is pretty benign stuff. We are not threatened by or scared of the content of most visual art. Nevertheless, in any major gallery throughout Australia, you can find images of full frontal nudity, depictions of violence, sex, psychological and physical torture, fundamental religious iconography, and drug use. None of this seems to worry us at all. But, almost all of these images are classified or restricted in other forms of art. What is it about visual art that doesn’t draw the same regulatory attention that other arts do?

Movies, books, radio and the internet must have a greater influence on us because we have bodies like the Office of Film and Literature Classification, and community assessment panels who view and help classify films. We also have broadcasting content regulation and internet content regulation, but we don’t censor or have any classification system for visual art. I asked the Attorney-General’s Department about the rules for visual art, here is what they told me.

“An important principle underlying the classification scheme is that adults should be able to read, hear and see what they want (with appropriate exceptions) bona fide artworks, are generally not required to be submitted for classification as they are not generally considered to be ‘submittable publications’.” All clear?

Visual art in schools and universities

I think the AG’s policy is wise. However, is visual art censored in other ways that we don’t get to hear about much? What about art schools and universities? Do teachers and art departments want to see students create in a specific style or discipline? I think they do.

If there is no censorship in content or style of visual art in Australia, why would an art school or university apply pressure on a student to create a particular type of art? I’m not suggesting that these institutions have policies for what art students can and cannot produce, but do students who work in a particular discipline or style, receive advantages over other students?

Another guiding/financial force for art students might be the current art market. As students near the end of their schooling, how are they affected by this and how does that alter their career path? In the last year of an art course are students producing more works that fit current trends in the art market? If so, isn’t that the most effective method for art students to further their careers? If it is, what about the art? Can art be created to fit a market trend and still be viewed as an effective and creative stimulus? The real answer might be, no pun intended, academic.

I know art students who have expressed frustrations with the styles and ideas they had to learn; some have dropped out due to these influences pushed upon them. Many artists state that they only found their true artistic voice after leaving school, this is nothing new. But what about the students who’ve had their voices manipulated due to a school or teacher’s particular discipline they want to see promoted? What happens to original creative thought in this type of process? In my opinion, it is destroyed. And you can see it in the images of some that have followed this path.

There are many similar works of a particular style being produced here in Australia. Art, which you can just about track its footprint to these artists and their schools.

Visual art outside of schools

Out in the world, artists find that censoring their artworks is not part of the criteria when it comes to setting up an exhibition. Artists and curators do go through a selection process when assembling their shows;  part of this is choosing which works presents best with other works.

Major galleries have internal guidelines about displaying visual art. Like most large organisations they have many years experience running their operations, and collectively they have managed to produce countless exhibitions throughout Australia and never had one art show banned due to its content. But we have banned plenty of books.

Censorship of art still goes on in our schools. Some teacher’s think it’s a worthy academic and artistic process. It is not. It is the crushing of creativity, and we can’t afford to do this in Australia.

Visual art in the commercial and corporate world

There are artworks designed for shock value and straight out political comment, and that in its context is accepted, Occasionally there’ll be cases like back in the Art Melbourne 07 exhibition, where the Royal Exhibition Building’s (REB) management, directed the Art Melbourne people to cover the doorway to the colourful and poignant drawings by Hazel Dooney, titled Kelly, the First Time. Because they (REB) decided that people under the age of eighteen needed protecting from images of nudity and sexuality.

We can’t expect everyone to understand what it is visual art is saying, but as the REB made no contact with the artist, this is censorship of the most ignorant kind. Fortunately, in this country, these cases are few. The pressures on not censoring art is far greater than any pressure to censor art, which proves how we’ve grown as a society – well most of us.

Visual art reflects who we are

Not having censorship on visual art tells us a lot about the psychological perception of art. Visual art offers us insights and reflections that other art mediums don’t express as well, due to its static nature, which gives time for study and interpretation. That said, within the still of visual art, there are more readings, suggestions, and opinions expressed about visual art than any other art form. But, almost no restrictions like there are on other art forms – an interesting equation.

I think we accept visual art without censorship, classifications or the input of interest groups because we don’t feel threatened by it. It may make us question many aspects of life and the way we see things, but overall visual art doesn’t make us feel unsafe. Though there might be reasons for censoring visual art: Roger Kimball American art critic and editor of New Criterion said “Judicious government censorship is not the enemy of freedom but its guarantor.” Which raises the question, is it irresponsible for our governments not to censor visual art? Wisely the answer to that is no.

Visual art voices

Reviewing art can bring you into contact with people from across the world. I interviewed a visual artist who was born and studied in the Ukraine under a Soviet regime during the 1970s and 80s. I asked her about censorship of art in her school. “Under Soviet arts training we could do what we like, really! As long as we didn’t criticise the system or the people in power we could create our art in any style or format and with almost any content we like. These things weren’t censored, we weren’t taught to create along a specific theory or discipline.”

I asked her about the benefits of this type of arts training? “Not being censored stylistically, allowed us to become better technically equipped, because of our type of education, it opened us up.”

Australian art is multi-dimensional, diverse and creative. But if teachers, schools and occasionally people from the corporate world are restricting that flow how can we show the world our real talent and true artistic perspective?

Image courtesy of Idea go at

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