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Acknowledging the role of censorship in art

Binah Shatsky

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Censorship is an artist’s enemy. The key to art, particularly performance art, is complete honesty, total lack of inhibition, and extreme vulnerability. As a result, art is a productive setting to breed controversy. Restrictions of any kind detract from the authenticity of an artist’s voice and therefore compromise art’s integrity.

For the last few months, as part of my Independent Study, I have been diligently working to piece together a sound score (a mix of musical and recording elements digitally clipped together into one solid piece), a major element of which was the Trump Access Hollywood Tapes, a 2005 recording of Trump making misogynistic, sexual remarks he later brushed off as “locker room talk.” As per my mentor’s suggestion, I signed up to choreograph for the student choreographed dance concert, and accompanied my several months of sound score work with several months of choreography- using experimental techniques to build a dance duet off of my music. Unfortunately, two days before the concert opened, the administration asked me to remove any profane or controversial language from my intricately devised piece. I could not comply with that kind of censorship. I experimented with altering the language in my piece, but these modifications fundamentally changed the piece’s intention. The integrity and honesty of my piece was sacrificed for the sake of audience comfort. Ultimately, I decided to perform the duet with me and my partner listening to the music through headphones while the audience watched the dance in silence.

This past Fall, in what seems like total hypocrisy, I stepped down as co-director from The Rappaccini Variations because of a lack of censorship. One scene in the show was directed in the style of Japanese theatre Noh. Noh Theatre is an extremely intense and highly trained form of theatre in which movement, music, and masks are used to communicate a heightened sense of emotion and ethereality. Our production made use of an array of Japanese cultural garb and accessories including Noh masks, which display traditionally Japanese features. None of the students performing the scene were of Japanese descent and, due to the limited rehearsal time, the scene seemed a mimicry of the style without the necessary deep understanding of the fundamentals or context. I had not had any contact with this scene until the first costume run when, on seeing it, I felt the performance, particularly in costume, to be appropriative and disrespectful. Several members of the cast and crew confirmed their discontent with me. I raised my concerns, as well as those of members of the cast and crew, to the creative team. As a cast, we held a discussion about the scene. Some slight changes were made in the dialogue and a note was included in the program, emphasizing the necessity of this work as a kind of cultural exploration, and way of learning about “outside the box” traditions. Some students remained upset by the scene, and I found the changes to be inadequate, so I quit.

As a fierce advocate for uncensored art, furious about my own work being censored, why would I try to censor the work of others? Performance artist Harry Giles discusses the responsibility of an artist to their audience, particularly when they present controversial or shocking work. Giles asks that as artists, we consider who we exclude or alienate from a performance by making certain strong choices. If we understand who our choices alienate, and we choose to make those choices anyway, that is our right as free speaking artists. Given this, both the scenarios I listed above shouldn’t have even been debated. The Rappaccini team, as long as they acknowledged that their choices could alienate racial minorities from the performance, was free to proceed. I, acknowledging that profanity and commentary on Trump could alienate certain audience members, should also have been free to proceed. In both cases, I considered these elements. I quit Rappaccini because I was not willing to endorse the potential alienation racial minorities, whatever the intentions of the creative team. While the team celebrated the opportunity to explore non-Western culture, I did not see this as worth the alienation of certain groups. On the other hand, I created my dance piece with Trump’s profanity because I knew it would alienate. I wanted controversy. I wanted people to squirm in their seats when they heard those words and I wanted there to be disagreement about my message in the audience. That is the essence of political art, something I wanted to explore.

Of course, Giles’ model for controversial art does not actually hold here, because we are part of an educational institution where the laws of free speech don’t apply, and the administration has the ability to censor whatever they choose. In our case, the right of the artist to speak freely is being handed to the institution, so Giles’ process of asking who is alienated gets handed to the greater community. When I called attention to the racial alienation that Rappaccini could cause, the ICIE and the theatre department reviewed it, minor changes were made, and the scene proceeded. Apparently, the exposure to non-Western cultures in this harried and incomplete way was “worth” the concerns of participants and potential alienation of audience members. Further, the concern of it being just a week away from opening seemed to eliminate the possibility of any major changes. Conversely, the profanity in my piece was questioned and it was decided that whatever alienation it would cause, either to young audiences, to Trump supporters, or to those offended by profanity, was unacceptable and therefore needed to be censored. In my case, the two-day time constraint was not enough to rule out major changes.

All of these choices were perfectly within the school’s right, but we need to seriously examine what message our school sends by making these choices. Why is concern regarding the alienation of racial minorities less important to the school than this other kind of alienation? Even if we concede to acknowledging that some changes were made to Rappaccini and a dialogue was facilitated surrounding the issues, racial alienation is potentially not being regarded as less important, but it is definitely being treated as equal. Are these really the values of our school, that alienation of racial minorities is less of an issue than profanity? If so, we are in need of a serious evaluation of what we deem “worth” alienation.

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Acknowledging the role of censorship in art