THE BLOG
07/31/2015 02:34 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2016

Fighting Against the "Fear of Art"

When the New School's Center for Public Scholarship organized a two-day conference in New York on "The Fear of Art," it was impossible not to be moved. The subject was censorship, banning, and violence against art. Artists, curators, scholars, students, art lovers and freedom lovers came together to talk about fear, and freedom. The forces that animate the art of our time gathered to examine the forces that inhibit the art of our time. What could be more important?

I moderated a panel at the conference, introducing three distinguished thinkers: David Freedberg of Columbia University, Emily Braun of Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, and Olaf Peters of Wittenberg University. Each of them studies actions against art, the fear and hate that motivate censorship and repression. Each of them has examined the ways that groups and governments use art and abuse it to advance their own politics and purposes. They each study the chasm between creative people and craven people.

I am struck, and was at the conference, by the way this subject stays with us, of how mindful we are of the oppression of art and artists. From Munich's "Degenerate Art" exhibition to "Monument Men," from the robbing of art to the return of art, we don't forget. The fall of the Afghan Buddhas, the burning of books, the toppling of statues, the gun shots, haunt us. They stay in our minds and memories. Scholars like these strive to understand such tragedies.

David Freedberg has written about the destruction of the colossal Buddhas in Afghanistan. He has said, "There is something about images that arouses both admiration and hostility, desire and revulsion." For him, the fact that so much art has been defaced and destroyed over time is evidence of the deep significance of art. As he has written, "Those people who seek to destroy art...testify to its very power... they acknowledge that works of art... enter our deepest feelings and rouse our deepest emotions." Freedberg depicts the fearsome history of defacements, the need censors have to control the lives of others, the search for thrill and attention, the intentionality, that motivate those who destroy art. His subject is censorship at its worst extremes.

For Emily Braun, the subject is censorship in daily life. She looks at the "moral compromises" that people make in the context of censorship. As she says, "The lines between unseemly cooperation, coercion, passive resistance and accommodation are not always clearly drawn." Using fascist Italy as the ground for her studies, Braun examines the "art and politics" that drive "fear of art" and that generate the "darkness," the threatening environments, within which artists, scholars and ordinary citizens must struggle to make moral choices, adaptations and compromises. She identifies an inescapable irony in the two meanings of the word collaboration: "creative unison," on the one hand, and "treacherous behavior" on the other. That ironic juxtaposition holds the range of behaviors that citizens face when censors threaten art, and them.

Olaf Peters examines censorship in official life. "The use of art, the instrumentalization of art as propaganda" is his subject, in his research and in his recent curation, the remounting at the Neue Galerie in New York, of the Nazis' "Degenerate Art" exhibition. The original exhibition in 1937 was intended by the Nazis to market their "values" by denigrating those of others as evidenced in their art. In reexamining the show, Peters is concerned with art as political instrument, the ways in which it is appropriated to advance regimes and curb resistance. The horror is that the arts can be so twisted, used for controlling allegiances rather than for freeing ideas and expression. Peters' examination reminds us that censorship and banning can themselves create "Fear of Art," because failure to heed the censors, to follow them, can be harmful, even fatal, to a citizenry.

The three presentations inspired pressing questions and comments from the audience at the New School. One commentator said that critics today are often accused of being censors, which discourages opinion and even scholarship. There were questions about the "ameliorative possibilities of art," the use of art for social change, because such uses can stimulate detractors and dissenters. A questioner asked how we can learn to respect the work of artists who are cautious in fearsome political situations, noting that we tend to support and laud the bold ones. There were questions about the extent to which commercial relationships and requirements constitute a kind of censorship. There was, overall, an interest in the curbs, controls, the censoriousness, that exist even in the lands of free expression.

I left this conversation knowing that we need much more conversation, in more places, by more of us. The "Fear of Art" is instilled by bigots, ruffians and extremists. To redress it, to support creativity and outspokenness, to encourage diversity of beliefs and behaviors, we need vigilance and education. This conference was an inspiring example of just what we need. We are fortunate that its full proceedings will appear in a special issue of Social Research this spring.