USA: Trump and Trauma, Threats and Tribalism: Art Censorship and a Divisive Presidency

15 January 2018
The article points at the most representative issues affecting artistic freedom in the first year of the Trump administration.
Ghaleb Nassar al-Bihani, Blue Mosque, 2016, watercolor


This article points at the most representative issues affecting artistic freedom in the first year of the Trump administration. It includes brief commentary on new government policies restricting the circulation of ideas and the ongoing pressures of private funders, and then proceeds to take a close look at a new and powerful trend: grassroots and netroots groups calling for the destruction of work that refers to disturbing histories.

By Svetlana Mintcheva    INSIGHT 

Almost a year into one the most divisive presidencies Americans have seen in their lifetimes, free speech is in crisis. Protests opposing alt-right and other controversial speakers have turned violent on college campuses, museums are facing threats of violence, artists have called for the destruction of work by other artists, and outrage is replacing reasoned debate (that apparently outdated darling of liberals).

A new culture war?
If this is a new culture war, it is very different from the 1990s when conservative legislators attacked “degenerate” art that had received public funding. For one, cultural conflict is playing out in a field much broader than the arts and involves a multiplicity of groups in conflict, not simply the religious right versus the art world, as in the 1990s. It reveals an art world fractured over representing history and race, campuses that refuse debate on issues some students and faculty find too offensive to talk about, and an online environment where “unfriending” is a frequent response to non-orthodox opinion. 

The overview offered here outlines a broad picture of current challenges to artistic freedom featuring familiar actors including government and private donors, as well as new demands for censorship coming from the left. Government, with some notable exceptions, plays a role not so much in direct censorship as in setting the structural conditions delimiting the circulation of ideas. Furthermore, the politically divisive rhetoric advanced by the President reverberates through the world of culture exacerbating conflict, especially around work exploring racism, police violence or the political standoff in the Middle East. Private funders, as usual, wield their financial clout to stifle political ideas they dislike. What is new is that the left is increasingly abandoning its stakes in free speech in what they believe is the service of advancing ideals of social justice.

The role of government policies and regulations
From the demise of net neutrality to extreme media consolidation, both accomplished by a Trump-appointed Federal Communications Commission, and including a range of legislative changes in-between, there are structural changes in the United States that promise long-term shifts in who is able to be heard and who shapes public opinion. What is affected is not so much the capacity for art production, but the platforms where art can be seen, how art can circulate and who can participate in the cultural economy.

Take for instance the so-called “Muslim Ban”. The legislation would deny entry to the US to citizens of a “blacklist” of eight (initially seven) Muslim-majority countries. One of the President’s first legislative efforts, the ban has closed off the US to artists that may seek refuge from repressive regimes and has made the visa process long and cumbersome even for those eligible to come into the US. The delays often mean those artists cannot make it in time for the cultural events and programs that they have been invited to attend. The long-term effects of such policies would inevitably mean further isolation and socio-cultural retrenchment. The visa ban is not targeted at specific art work, yet deeply affects artists and the culture at large and potentially limits the range of art available to the American public.

Direct censorship
While it is structural changes and policies that have the longest term impact, occasionally the current administration slips into interventions directly taken out of totalitarian handbooks. In November 2017, for instance, the Department of Defense issued a new directive declaring that artwork by Guantanamo Bay detainees will henceforth be held by the government as its property and would be destroyed when detainees leave (subsequently, in response to public outrage, the DOD wavered on the destruction plan). This happened just as the gallery of The John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York was having an exhibition of such art called Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantanamo Bay (the show opened Oct 2, 2017).

The article points at the most representative issues affecting artistic freedom in the first year of the Trump administration.
Ghaleb Nassar al-Bihani, Blue Mosque, 2016, watercolor

The work on display had been cleared to leave the prison (i.e., it did not carry any secret coded messages) and was held by the lawyers of detainees, who lent it to the gallery. Its content was of the most innocuous kind: mostly seascapes and landscapes. What was problematic for those who objected to the show and to those who gave the orders to hold and destroy all future work was the identity of the artists. In an article attacking the show as offensive, a New York tabloid (the New York Post) posted mugshots of the prisoners overlaid upon the work. The dreamy watercolours contrasted sharply with the photos of what were clearly Muslim men—the genre of the mugshot itself always implying a criminal context.

Looking at the mugshots and listening to the government’s justifications for Guantanamo, it is easy to forget that the majority of these men have not even been charged, let alone convicted; that they are held indefinitely without trial upon suspicions that remain unconfirmed. Many years after Barack Obama’s pre-election promise to close Guantanamo Bay, it is still there and the public spotlight has moved on to other issues. No wonder the DOD—and perhaps the White House – prefers it to stay that way. The John Jay show presents a glimpse into the mental world of the detainees and that glimpse is not of demonic plans of blasting buildings, but of peaceful seascapes. Could then the men held at Guantanamo be just as human as ourselves? And could the moment of empathy experienced when sharing the image of a boat floating on tranquil seas also bring home the horror of imprisoning a person for an indefinite length of time, away from family and children, with no proof of crime?

The government has not (as yet) demanded that the John Jay show come down, they have just changed the prison regulations at Guantanamo. And the First Amendment does not apply to those detainees (one of the many rights they are denied). But it is not just the detainees that are affected here – it is the American public whose access is curtailed to what the government wants it to see. This is the very same public in whose name Guantanamo was created. So much for democracy.

Exacerbation of conflict: Social polarization
Aside from structural policy changes and direct suppression of artwork, the new administration has exacerbated longstanding conflicts which has led to the further polarization of an already split nation. Such polarization affects conversations about race and racism, traumatic histories, indigenous rights, sexuality, class, and the Middle East, among others.

On some of the issues the President sets the tone more powerfully than on others, but the generally angry and accusatory tone coming from the White House resonates through all aspects of the public sphere, including the art world. The President’s tweets have included re-tweets of extremist organizations’ anti-Muslim video hoaxes, a condemnation of protests against racism and white supremacists as just as bad as the lethal violence of the supremacists themselves, and a mocking reference to a Democratic Senator as “Pocahontas” at an event honouring Native American veterans. It is thus not surprising that a loud, openly racist, nationalist and white supremacist alt-right sees itself aligned with the President and his top advisors. The administration has done very little to correct that impression.

While Trump’s tweets, with all their social repercussions, could be seen as distraction techniques, divisiveness also informs the President’s policy decisions. The recent move to pull the US out of UNESCO because of the cultural and educational organization’s positions on Israel and Palestine, for instance, has fed directly into the political polarization over the situation in the Middle East.

It is harder than ever to deal with the conflict in artistic representation. Any art institution that displays art about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict—or even art that is created by Israeli or Palestinian artists—needs to carefully navigate intense pressures coming from right-wing pro-Israel groups and calls for boycott from supporters of the cultural BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement.

Right-wing activists regularly paint individuals and institutions who are critical of Israeli government policies as anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic in an effort to silence them. Many of these efforts are successful. In October 2017, after accusations of supporting “anti-Israel” programming, the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) in New York cancelled a reading of Rubble Rubble, a play by Dan Fishback, solely because of the playwright’s association with the organization Jewish Voice for Peace.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the cultural BDS movement threatens to boycott any institution that hosts work which is supported by Israeli government funds. Such was the case with the 2017 Lincoln Center presentation of David Grossman’s To the End of the Land, a play which explores the entanglement between private lives, war, and history in Israel between 1967 and 2000. The author, Grossman, is an outspoken critic of the Israeli government and its cultural policies, as well as a prominent peace activist. In his 2010 New York Times review of the novel, upon which the play is based, author Colm Tóibín wrote: “To say this is an antiwar book is to put it too mildly… This is one of those few novels that feel as though they have made a difference to the world.”

Nevertheless, a large group of prominent New York cultural figures—playwrights, filmmakers, actors, and directors, including Caryl Churchill, Wallace Shawn, Lynn Nottage, and Taylor Mac—demanded that Lincoln Center cancel To the End of the Land because the production received Israeli government funding. Lincoln Center proceeded with the play. Cancelling performances would have deprived audiences of an important critical voice coming from within Israel, as well as of the opportunity to deepen their understanding of the human side of a tragic socio-political conflict. 

Any cultural producer considering content related to the Middle East or exhibitions featuring artists from the area needs to prepare to face protests. As always, the worst consequence of such controversies is that, instead of daring the often ugly and ad-hominem invective of protesters, cultural producers may censor themselves and avoid dealing with the issue altogether. That outcome is even more likely when it is an institution’s major donors who object to the work as was the case at AJHS.

Funding pressures
Contrary to the 1990s, in the current cultural conflict the focus is not on government funding the arts. The President did try to erase the National Endowment for the Arts from existence in his budget blueprint, not in retaliation against offense (his outrage being mostly reserved for the media), but in an effort to eliminate “waste”. Congress has since voted to continue funding the agency. Federal funding for the arts is so diminished and so conservatively allocated already, it is hard to get even right-wing conservatives excited about its uses. Indeed, almost all recent controversies over art have taken place in private institutions and, where funding pressures have been used, they have originated with private funders.

Private funders and the pressures they exercise have long been a problem in a country which prefers to leave artistic freedom to the whims of the free market than to provide public support for art. Even when not bent on reinforcing their political point of view, private funders become skittish when their brands get attached to controversial content—especially if that content is critical of those in power. Bank of America and Delta Airlines rapidly withdrew their support of New York’s Public Theater, when the summer 2017 production of Julius Caesar was attacked for its present day allusions to President Trump. The public stood firm in the face of funding pressures, individual hecklers, and even death threats. Other corporate donors quickly stepped in to fill the funding gap. But could a smaller and less venerable institution take a similar risk? Pre-emptive self-censorship for fear of lost funding is hard to document, but familiar to any leader of a cultural institution in the US.

Traumatic histories and the political left
While funding pressures, government censorship, and controversy around the Middle East are all familiar and persistent threats to artistic freedom, a brief look at the recent drumroll of high-profile art controversies points at a newly powerful actor: grassroots and netroots efforts coming from the political left that call on institutions to refuse a platform to art they find disturbing or ethically objectionable.

Left wing protests against exhibitions and art world inequities is certainly not new (the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1969 show Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America,1900-1968 comes to mind, as do the actions of the feminist Guerrilla Girls Collective in the 80s and 90s), but their power to mobilize a young cohort of artists, their frequency, and their influence have increased to the point of creating a sea change in the art world. A rising nationalist and racist alt-right and a divisive presidency, complete with accusatory tweets, attacks on mainstream media, and a failure to take a firm position against racism or police violence, contribute to the anger fuelling those protests.

High profile art controversies in 2017 came at the rate of one every two to three weeks, with targets expanding to a point where a white artist, because of the colour of their skin, is not only criticized when making work about historical trauma affecting minorities, they—and the exhibiting institution—become subject to personal threats. Calls for censorship and the destruction of the artwork come from groups that previously were staunch supporters of artistic freedom (when this freedom was threatened by the religious right). They justify censorship now in the name of social justice and of protecting minorities from the pain certain historical representations may provoke.

Who can represent traumatic history?
The year’s defining controversy was around Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, based on the iconic historical photograph of the 14-year old’s mutilated body in its casket. Tortured and lynched in 1955 because a white woman claimed he offended her with sexually suggestive remarks, Till became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement after his mother decided to publicly release an image of his corpse in its casket. Schutz’s work was included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial along with many works on race-related issues by artists of colour. The Biennial was deliberately participating in the national conversation about race and police violence against black men.

The article points at the most representative issues affecting artistic freedom in the first year of the Trump administration.
Dana Schutz, Open Casket (2016). Oil on canvas. Collection of the artist; courtesy Petzel Gallery, New York.

Schutz’ painting, much as it aligned with the general themes of the Biennial, provoked a firestorm of calls for removal and destruction: because it was painted by a white woman, because it “appropriated” a painful history which did not belong to her, because it re-traumatised viewers. A subsequent mid-career retrospective of the artist at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston was challenged by a group of artists and activists, who asked for its cancellation, solely because of Schutz’s transgression in creating the Emmett Till painting (the work was not part of the ICA exhibition).

To their credit, neither the Whitney nor ICA bowed to pressures for censorship. The Whitney added a statement from the artist to the wall text accompanying the work and also invited poet and author Claudia Rankine, founder of the Racial Imaginary Institute, to organize a public panel and conversation about the controversy. The broader debate around the work—which took place across print media, the internet, as well as at the Whitney panel—was passionate and angry, insightful and revealing of deeper conflicts. It revealed deep grievances and fissures within the art world. If anything, it proved how productive controversy could be if an institution is true to its mandate and stands by curatorial decisions. Consensus has not been reached (and is unlikely to be reached anytime soon), but positions have been developed, heard and challenged.

A month or so after the Whitney controversy, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis faced questions and then loud protests over a new sculpture to be installed in the large public space in front of the institution.  The sculpture, which looked somewhat like playground equipment, was in fact a composite of seven gallows used in executions by the US government over the past 200 years. Conceived by multimedia, socially-engaged artist Sam Durant, the sculpture, titled Scaffold, sought to draw attention to the death penalty and its effects.

The article points at the most representative issues affecting artistic freedom in the first year of the Trump administration.
Signs in protest of Scaffold. Photo: Lorle Shaul

What fired up the controversy was the inclusion, among the historical gallows structures, of one that had been used in 1862 to execute 38 Dakota men about 80 miles away from the Walker in Mankato, MN. Minnesota has the largest Native American population in the country and when some Dakota nation members recognized the Mankato gallows in sculpture, they claimed deep emotional disturbance and the sense of being traumatized by the work.

Since the piece was intended as a permanent installation in a highly visible public space, the challenge faced by the Walker was much harder than the one confronting the Whitney’s Biennial exhibition. Aggravating the situation, the institution had failed to reach out to the community in preparation for the display of such a challenging work—something that went against the Walker’s own general practices.

The article points at the most representative issues affecting artistic freedom in the first year of the Trump administration.
Signs on the perimeter fence around the sculpture garden. Photo: Lorle Shaul

Just days before the official opening of the sculpture to the public, the director of the Walker, Olga Viso, issued a lengthy apology expressing “regret that I did not better anticipate how the work would be received in Minnesota, especially by Native audiences” and recognizing that the museum “should have engaged leaders in the Dakota and broader Native communities in advance of the work’s siting”. The statement further apologized for “any pain and disappointment that the sculpture might elicit” and promised to “provoke discussion about how the Walker can strive to be a more sensitive and inclusive institution”.

This apology, rather than acting as a bridge of reconciliation, sparked a wave of protests against the work. Just days later, representatives of the city, Walker, the artist and Dakota elders, met and agreed that the sculpture would be removed and disposed of in any way the Dakota wanted; in addition, all intellectual property rights to it would go to the Dakota so that it would never be displayed again, anywhere.

The article points at the most representative issues affecting artistic freedom in the first year of the Trump administration.
Signs on the perimeter fence around the sculpture garden. Photo: Lorle Shaul

Ironically, the intent of the artist in creating Scaffold was not that different from the intent of some Dakota Nation Minnesotans who had been educating a younger generation about events such as the Mankato executions. Similarly, the intent of Dana Schutz to speak to the racist violence at the heart of American history was not, in itself, controversial. The controversies, in both cases, arose over who had the right to speak about traumatic histories and, to a lesser extent, how those histories should be spoken about. While the Walker failed to develop this conversation in the way the Whitney did, the issue remains on the table.

Americans’ relationship to the history of racial violence is as mixed as their racial heritage, as author Zadie Smith noted in response to the Dana Schutz controversy. The history of race in America is one of racial impurity and intermixture and “even when Americans are not genetically mixed, they live in a mixed society at the national level if no other. There is no getting out of our intertwined history.” Yet, in this divisive and racially charged historical moment, lines of opposition and conflict are quickly drawn and policed by anger. These lines demand purity, clarity, and an unambiguous distribution of historical guilt and victimhood. One of the protest signs in front of Scaffold read “No Conversation”—a rather chilling demand to stop discussion and just take down the offending work.

A major component in recent controversies has been the personal narrative of pain and trauma. The Walker found it hard to stand by Scaffold when Dakota in the community began to talk about the pain they experienced when looking at the work. Listening to emotional experience is a welcome recognition that such experience has cognitive value, as well as that a certain type of reasoned debate is linked to education and class and excludes those who are socially marginalized. However, relying on emotion as argument mirrors the international rise of populism and its gross manipulation of base sentiment. Appealing to feelings is a politically dangerous strategy.

Donald Trump and today’s leading European extreme right politicians rose to power appealing to feelings of disaffection, anger against immigrants, nationalism, or economic anxieties. Manipulating these emotions are what populist politicians have always done well—unfortunately, at a high cost to society at large. It is thus disturbing to see that feelings of pain are at the centre of increasing numbers of censorship campaigns coming from the political left. Whereas emotional response should not be dismissed, it is dangerous to let it have the final word. A conversation that takes into account both emotional response and reasoned argument is more necessary than ever. The Walker missed the opportunity to lead such a conversation.

Public universities, which have faced many recent calls to remove or cover murals have been more successful at navigating the complex territory of present day emotional responses to historical trauma. The murals in question often date back to the early 20th century, most of them created through the art project of the government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) agency. As part of an effort to overcome the great depression and provide jobs, WPA employed musicians, artists, writers, actors, and directors in large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects. Some murals were realistic, others depicted the grandeur of the American landscape, and quite a few were politically charged and idealistic, focusing on labour and their struggles. Conservatives, back in the day, irked by images of workers, representations of class disparity and the occasional appearance of Karl Marx, opposed government funding for the programme.

Today, however, complaints—and even calls for destruction—are coming from very different quarters. Some claim the works whitewash and romanticize a brutal history and that, in representing disenfranchised groups in a position of subjugation, they reinforce a hierarchy of oppression; others, however, just demand not to be reminded of that painful history.

The article points at the most representative issues affecting artistic freedom in the first year of the Trump administration.
“Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press,” Cultural Panel X of Thomas Hart Benton’s A Social History of Indiana (1933), Photo: Kevin E Montague, Eskenazi Museum of Art

In the summer of 2017, for instance, students at the University of Indiana-Bloomington renewed demands for the removal from view a portion of a 1930s-era mural by Thomas Hart Benton because it depicts a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) rally. The 22-panel mural shows moments of Indiana history—the ugly parts along with the good. It is by no means a celebration of the KKK. Yet the petition to remove them argued that exposing students and faculty of colour to the image of the KKK is a racist act. In response the university kept the murals in place but decided to only use the space for a gallery and public lectures, not as a classroom.

What underlies all this pain and anger against artwork is much larger than any artwork or exhibition. Cultural expression is called on to bear the weight of deeper grievances, such as racism, discrimination, and social inequalities. However, any kind of purely cultural resolution—the ban on the use of images relating to oppressed cultural minorities (if such a thing is even possible) or the placement of safety barriers between audience and disturbing artwork—is unlikely to contribute to the solution of the deeper problems of discrimination, racism, and violation of human rights.

Why is art such a target in the first place? One possible answer is that art exhibitors are easy to attack. Not only do art institutions claim they are serving the community; they are deeply connected with—and dependent on—artists who see themselves as social activists. Attacking highly visible art institutions also gets press attention and thus provides grievances a visible platform. For instance, one of the most vocal recent protests involved a gallery on the LES/Chinatown in New York which had a show drawing attention to gentrification. The gallery quickly became a target for repeated demonstrations protesting the contents of the show as exploitative, but also objecting to the gallery itself for its role in gentrifying Chinatown. Developers which transform low income housing into luxury pads and are the main culprits in forcing lower income groups to leave the area remain, at the same time, invisible.

The article points at the most representative issues affecting artistic freedom in the first year of the Trump administration.
Members of Chinatown Art Brigade and other protesters in front of James Cohan Gallery in Chinatown. Photo: Elena Goukassian for Hyperallergic.

Participation-lite: Social Media Activism
Besides the high profile of their targets, protests also take advantage of “cheap speech”—provided by the internet and social media. The low cost of participation in online activist campaigns is a double edged sword: on the one hand it gives a voice to those whom previous gatekeepers of culture (publishers, academic or art institutions) have kept out; on the other hand it demands only a kind of participation-lite.

Participation-lite is problematic as it engages potentially large numbers of people in exercising powerful pressure without always understanding the issues in depth or thinking through conflicting considerations. The petition asking the Guggenheim Museum to remove two videos of performances including animals from its show about Chinese conceptual art, for instance, gathered some 800,000 signatures within a week. It was easy to sign the petition and to feel you are defending animals. Yet some of the co-signatories were not even aware that the performances they were outraged about were not re-enacted by the Guggenheim and that the work in question was simply the documentation of events that had happened over decades ago.

Another recent participation-lite petition asked the Metropolitan Museum to reconsider its display of a Balthus painting in light of the current revelations of systemic sexual abuse of women in the culture industries. Although the petition got relatively few signatures (about 10,000), it was broadly covered and amplified in the media. The Balthus is staying, but the action demonstrates how every societal problem could find its symbolic equivalent in the museum—and how easy it is to start an art world controversy. Removing the Balthus would, of course, do little to change the gender-biased relationships of power that underlie the sexual abuse of women. Indeed, it may even do harm by playing into a kind of sexual puritanism that has traditionally been used to demonize female sexuality.

The key word of the last year has been listening. It has also been the word most acutely felt lacking. There is ubiquitous lament over ideological and net-generated bubbles and, simultaneously, a reinforcement of the boundaries of those bubbles. The administration is partly a symptom of this process of national tribalization and a major factor in exacerbating the process. Whereas there is a clamour of voices—artistic and otherwise—the platforms that have broad visibility beyond specialized audiences are few and under intense scrutiny. Speech that offends orthodoxies is subject to critique and threats from all sides. Free speech as a value is increasingly abandoned by its traditional liberal supporters and hoisted as a banner of white supremacist, racist speech. We are at a true moment of crisis—in the sense of deep change. Where we go next is not yet clear. But surely, our work as advocates for artistic freedom has become both more challenging and more necessary.

Svetlana Mintcheva is director of programs at the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), an alliance of U.S. national organizations committed to protecting freedom of speech. She is the founding director of NCAC’s Arts Advocacy Program, the only U.S. national initiative devoted to the arts and free expression today. Dr. Mintcheva has written on emerging trends in censorship, organized public discussions, and mobilized support for individual artists. She is the co-editor of Censoring Culture: Contemporary Threats to Free Expression (New Press, 2006) and of Curating Under Pressure: International Perspectives on Negotiating Conflict and Upholding Integrity (Routledge, 2019 forthcoming). An academic as well as an activist, Dr. Mintcheva has taught literature and critical theory at the University of Sofia, Bulgaria and at Duke University, NC, from which she received her Ph.D. in critical theory in 1999, as well as New York University. Her current research focuses on ethics and self-censorship within art institutions.


This article is part of the Freemuse  INSIGHT  series edited by Marie Korpe. It was published in January 2018. The views and opinions presented in the article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of Freemuse.

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