More years ago than I care to think about, Two Live Crew, a hip-hop band from Miami, produced an album entitled "As Nasty As They Wanna Be." The sexually explicit lyrics and themes caused much controversy, and it was the first album in history to be deemed legally obscene, but this wasn’t the first we had heard of this group. Years earlier I would go to the bus stop every day to pick up Michael and Beth and hear Two Live Crew songs blaring out of cars filled with waiting teens. Having to discuss those lyrics with my two young children infuriated me. I was particularly angry when rumor had it that their lead singer recorded “clean” versions of his songs for his own children. I was indeed angry, but I didn’t believe in censorship of the arts.
Tipper Gore, wife of then senator Al Gore, was an active member of a group called Parents Music Resource Center(PMRC), and everyone was discussing the possibility of censoring this type of music. PMRC settled on promoting a rating system similar to the movie system, but controversy continued as to what should or shouldn’t be censored.
In 1987, photographer Andres Serrano displayed his offering entitled Immersion (Piss Christ) and received much acclaim for it. The photograph was of a small plastic crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine. Two years later U.S. Senators Al D’Amato and Jesse Helms became infuriated when they realized that Serrano received thousands of dollars from the tax-payer funded National Endowment for the Arts. People tried to censor the piece, and the artist lost funding and dealt with death threats. Through the years it has been vandalized when on display, and in 2012 religious groups and some politicians asked President Obama to denounce the artwork. To have done so would have been an example of religious censorship, yet many people were horrified at what they saw as the highest level of disrespect. I agreed the piece was disrespectful, but I didn’t believe in censorship of the arts.
From their beginnings movies, books, and television have also faced critics who want to censor them. In 1894, the silent film Carmencita was banned in Newark, New Jersey, because the dancer’s underwear (a large petticoat) was showing. In 1907 Chicago authorized the police chief to screen each movie to determine whether it should be shown. The Motion Picture Association established movie ratings in 1968, but the PG-13 rating didn't come about until “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” There was one violent scene in it, so they couldn’t give it a PG rating, but they thought an R rating for that movie was too much.
When television brought entertainment into our homes, those who believed in censorship had a field day. In 1952, when Lucille Ball got pregnant, the very word pregnant was not allowed to be used. In 1956 Elvis’ pelvis became an issue. He had to be shown from the waist up. Lest you think things have changed, Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" during Super Bowl XXXVIII received over 500,000 complaints from American viewers.
As for books, the first censorship of the written word took place in 1629; and it was downhill from there on. Some of our most beloved classics have been banned throughout the years. To Kill a Mockingbird, Huck Finn, Of Mice and Men and even Harry Potter books have been challenged time and again.
There is a major problem with censorship. What is offensive to me might not be offensive to you, and if we start trying to protect everyone’s sensibilities than we will have no artistic expression at all. Since censorship is constitutionally frowned upon, perhaps we should learn to be our own censors. I have every right to NOT go to a movie, watch a television show that offends me, or visit a museum showing people’s naked bodies. I am not forced to read a book that I find too explicit or listen to lyrics of any song. If any of the above bothers me all I need to do is look the other way, but if none of it bothers me, I should have every right to enjoy the art as it was intended to be shown.
So years ago, when my children saw me fuming over Two Live Crew lyrics and asked if I thought their music should be taken off of the radio, I told them no. I explained that I would never buy their music or go to a concert, but I would not want to take away anyone’s right to express himself or herself artistically. I agree with Martha Graham and would never expect anyone to think my way is the only correct way. In every aspect of life we must learn to accept and enjoy what we find acceptable and enjoyable without trying to make the rest of the country accept our beliefs and standards.
The book that I read this week is not a censored title...yet. Rick Mofina, one of my favorite authors, wrote Last Seen, a thriller about a missing child that will keep you on the edge of your seat as you try to figure out “who done it.”
As always a complete review of this book follows this blog.