Is the right
to free speech more important than the content of that speech?
Ironically, yes. This would not be so if it were not for the
racist, homophobic, and bigoted groups that actively seek
to exercise their freedoms. The cancellation of public access
television in Kansas City because of the Klan program "Race
and Reason" is a clear reminder that if one group is prevented
from exercizing their rights of free speech, everyone loses.
At the same
time, we mustnt let the cry free speech
ring hollow from hysterical repetition. As a slogan it doesnt
defend every expression. A Rochester photographer was recently
intimidated by the police for his images of his 2 year old
son-photographed both naked and clothed. Accused of child
pornography, it is not enough to say free speech
in his defense. We must unite in saying that there is nothing
inherently obscene about a childs naked body, nor his
fathers gaze. Nor of Mapplethorpes exhibitionism
and sadomasochistic ritual. You may disagree, but I argue
that we have nothing to gain from our disavowal of even the
most extreme images, and everything to lose. Scores of images
and representations, including my own work, have been attacked
for their depictions of everyday events. The attack is so
vicious, so revengeful, that its obvious that the New
Right is over-invested in this project. Why? Because the New
Right is trying to control the image of this nation,
they have appropriated art and culture for their reflecting
glass, a mirror that will smoothly project a conservative,
traditional identity. It then becomes a struggle
to maintain the purity of this surface, an accomplishment
realized by discriminatory practice. By participating in this
pick-and-choose mentality of what constitutes acceptable
images in our culture, the rest of us will be participating
in this fiction, this lie that our identity is composed of
some projections but not others. Censorship, intolerance and
bigotry is the inevitable result. We must protect ourselves
from participating in a national identity that does not reflect
our own reality, and more importantly, to recognize the limitations
of all reflections and how their illusion prevents us from
knowing our true personal and political power.
Bush gives a citation to a Boy Scout troop or United Way agency
he refers to each as a point of light. I havent
heard of Bush using this distinction for the troop of AIDS
educators, "Buddies," and professionals working
against AIDS in the gay community. Why cant they join
the spectacle of a "thousand points of light" that
makes up our pool of volunteer resources? Because, this spectacle
is so politicized that it refuses access to all others.
The "thousand points" are those that help Bush in his effort
to project an idealized image of civic duty onto the face
of the nation. Bush, like Ronald Reagan, reminds us that our
national identity is cinematic, it is a projection
of values. These are packaged to resemble an ideal image of
the perfect American citizen that we may seek to emulate,
but will never attain. (Even those little Boy Scouts wont
satisfy the imaginary criteria of idealism.) These values,
of the 'ideal' family, job, sex, etc., are a fiction and it
is a mistake to project our own desire onto them in the hope
that they will materialize. Personal and political power can,
however, be realized if we are stridently conscious of how
identity is constructed - by discrimination motivated by our
desire to attain the idealized - and that real political power
can be gained by deconstructing the 'ideal.' The first step
is to refuse the standard of 'morality' in our debates over
art. The second is to insure that democratic principles are
shared by every sector of our society.
democratic priciples, such as 'freedom of speech,' are all
too often simply rhetorical language. We do not all share
the same constitutionally protected rights, which creates
a crisis not only for the oppressed, but for democracy itself.
Because Gay and Lesbian civil rights are systematically eliminated
from (most) municipal, state, and federal statutes, gay activism
is on the front lines of the struggle. (1) And not surprisingly,
the fight is being fought on the battlefield of gay and lesbian
the Cincinnati acquittal suggests that there is freedom
of speech for gay expression (Mapplethorpes photos),
this is just a symbolic victory. I'd like to give a
few examples of how the 'principle' of Free Speech is applied
with discrimination - how the rhetorical use of the 'principle'
is used to oppose true freedom.
At a recent
conference on censorship, (2) the director of one of our local
arts councils described two incidents of censorship that she
was confronted with. In one, a high school mural designed
by students was painted over by school officials because it
referred to drugs, teen sex and AIDS. The director describes
six weeks we put our exhibition up at the New York State
Power Authority Building....The best of show happened
to be a photograph of a young man who had a rather delicate
face. A very nice young man, I know him, but he had a
very delicate face and so the director of the Power Authority
decided that this might be a picture of somebody who was
gay...so the day after the opening she took down his picture.
She just took it and put it in a backroom.
Of the two cases
of censorship, the Arts Council director chose to defend the
school mural. If the principle of free speech was the impetus,
why not defend them both? Certainly time and resources play
a role, but the fact remains that defending students
freedom of speech to the public and, more importantly, to
the press, is more attractive than defending an alleged gay
photo. This photo was censured because the subject looked
gay. Bush et al. dont want to look into that reflecting
glass and see a faggot staring back. This incident
reminds me of the strategies of Pol Pot who persecuted anyone
who wore glasses because that identified them as an intellectual.
Not just harassed them, but mercilessly murdered them for
wearing spectacles. What is going on here? A photograph was
taken down because the subject looks gay, yet the arts
director choose to ignore this while shes busy upholding
high school students right to free speech???
There is a different logic being employed. The school officials
who painted over the mural did so to protect the students
from themselves, but the Power Authority official took
down that photo to protect the public from the
gay menace. The result is that freedom of
speech is rendered a convenient slogan to fight censorship,
but as slogan it is rhetorical speech. It acts to mask the
very real issue of freedom of being- especially
sexual freedom and the varied ways in which it is expressed
by consensual adults. Empty rhetoric is what allows some people
to support free speech while simultaneously trying
to repress the content of that speech. For it is the right
to speak that is fundamental to the image of a traditional,
unified democracy, while simultaneously the content
of speech is perceived to be threatening to that unity. Therefore
the right to speech is triumphed while the content
at the conference argued: " If were trying to
create more bridges of communication between audiences and
communities that dont know what art is, you have to
somehow speak their language. By throwing stuff that is offensive
in their face and we know theyre going to be offended
by it, I dont know if that helps." Its
obvious to me why this strategy will fail. For how can we
speak in their language if it doesnt even
acknowledge the terms gay love and gay sex?
We need to teach them our language, and show them what there
is to appreciate about it. By focusing its attacks toward
education and the arts, the New Right exposes its true agenda-
the images and representations must be suppressed. In a recent
issue of the New Art Examiner, Lynne Warren, associate
curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, expresses
her dissatisfaction with the 'product quality' of contemporary
while it is disquieting that NEA (sic) is under siege,
it is not really surprising....the arts community is now
quite astonished that its freewheeling "anything
goes"ethos is being questioned....Did the arts community
really believe it could "reach a broader audience"
without having to stop and think maybe that broader audience
really wouldnt know how to decipher those often
morally bankrupt, cynical, obscure, self-referential,
and downright self-indulgent products contemporary artists
are spewing forth? Or does the community believe that
because the jaded, safe thrill-seeking (cf. "safe
sex") New York art world think Robert Mapplethorpes
sadomasochistic imagery is the cats meow, the public-at-large
should swallow it whole (pun intended)?
This makes me wonder
what standards Warren would employ to raise the quality of
the product today?? Surely her formula would exclude
gay and lesbian artists, who are made to feel culpable for
the failure of the arts to reach a "broader audience."
Dont gay men and lesbians constitute a broader
audience than that traditionally served by the arts?
How ignorant of her to describe the representations we make
of ourselves as "morally bankrupt", even if those
images are of the most marginally extreme sexually activities.
Scapegoating gay and lesbian artists for the crisis on the
national arts scene is the weakest, most cowardly response
to conservative pressure. Its not hard to guess what
Warrens political investment is in this debate when
she makes a comment like: "If art is repressed and
censored, the museum must reflect this reality. For better
or worse, museums must reflect, not dictate artistic developments."
More illogical thinking here- the shadow of censorship cast
by conservatives is described as an "artistic development,"
which suggests that artists themselves are responsible. The
entire arts community must condemn art administrations that
subscribe to this tactic.
This same language
of capitulation is evident, unfortunately, in traditional
lesbian discourse that refuses to tolerate sadomasochistic
expression. Traditional lesbian feminists(politicized by 70s
discourse) are intent on imposing one expression of
sexuality on all lesbians, while furiously disavowing marginal
sex practices. The battle is not ostensibly around acceptable
behavior( if it was their intentions would clearly be aligned
with the fascist struggle for social control), but rather
over an acceptable representation of lesbians-
to themselves and to others.
one thing, representation is another. Gay life is not conducive
to an idealized image of the American family, which, as we
know by now, is an outdated and irrelevant fiction that masks
the alternative family structures in use today. For the general
public to see gay experience recorded is too threatening to
their world/view. It is the representation that is incongruent
with their projected image of themselves, a gay point
of light that must be snuffed before it exposes the
fiction of their own identity.
have it both ways. We cant suppress content while hiding
behind rhetorical slogans. Its either free expression
and some degree of legal and social tolerance for the content
of our expressions, or censorship, repression and state control.
1, 1990 I was arrested, along with seventeen Buffalo artists,
for demonstrating against censorship at Artpark, in Lewiston,
N.Y. Artpark had canceled a performance by Survival Research
Laboratories that was to feature a machine covered with Bibles,
modeled after the heat-resistant tiles that cover the space
shuttles. As in all SRL performances, the machines destroy
each other in fiery battle. This was misconstrued by the paranoid
art administration at Artpark as Bible burning."
In a radio program aired in Buffalo the week after the arrests,
the program host had the following discussion with a fundamentalist
talking about a performance that was canceled at Artpark
due to at least one scene that might have involved a symbolic
destruction of...the bible.
see all over this country a bashing of conservative values.
Bob, whos bashing...?
lets take one television station, Channel 17 recently
last night had a promotion of the gay lifestyle.
so? They promote how the gays are being undertaken, how
the gays are being suppressed in society, how we need
to help out and understand the homosexual community.
you would prefer to suppress homosexuals?
would prefer to call it a perversion, which it is. Its
should we suppress homosexuals? Should we punish them
in some way?
punish them, no. I dont believe they deserve civil
rights or...they want to become a minority status.
dont deserve civil rights?
want to become a minority status in America.
other words if there is a black homosexual he doesnt
deserve civil rights?
I said he wants minority status because of his homosexual
lifestyle. Its unnatural.
your eyes it is.
of course for many ultra-conservative Christians throughout
many liberals too its considered...its considered...unusual.
In many liberals so its not just myself.
performance that did not involve a gay artist nor gay themes
was attacked by using the gay lifestyle as an
indicator of the destruction of Americas moral fiber.
The "gays are culpable" line of thinking once
more. Again and again we see that gay rights are on the front
line of defense against reactionary thinking. This radio program,
which featured two Buffalo artists and a spokesperson for
Survival Research Laboratories, was applauded by the arts
community for its sympathetic treatment of the issue of censorship.
Ignored was the fact that the radio host could not contain
a homophobic remark when he argued that "liberals too"
considered homosexuality "unusual." Curiously, he
defends the civil rights of a black homosexual-
but of course civil rights for ethnic minorities is a principle
that any liberal wont fail to endorse. Civil rights
are easy to defend for gays if it involves the culturally
and legally endorsed code of minority status. In the age of
the sound-bite, we rely on those little tokens of meaning
to define and understand the issues. Black rights,
womens rights, free speech are
all are slogans that help us to encapsulate the issues into
digestible bits. But the meaning of these civil rights implodes
in the slogans and jargon used to contain them. How many white
people might agree with civil rights for people
of color while at the same time not wanting them
to move next door? Or men who believe in equal
rights for women while feeling threatened by feminists? The
sound-bite works to universalize concepts and cultural codes
while at the same time rendering them meaningless. This reductionist,
sound-bite phenomenon of our mediated society cheats all cultures
that are complex and layered, while it allows the most perverted
misrepresentations to occur in the name of tradition,
family values, and free enterprise.
(At the opening of the first McDonalds restaurant in
China, an inflatable Ronald McDonald was perched in the lotus
position on the roof.)
We are left
with a crisis of interpretation. Gay men and lesbians have
no constitutional referent for their rights. The state, having
neglected its responsibility to the gay community, has been
replaced by the church as the standard for interpretation.
This is an ominous development. The forces that impose this
bianarism on our lives must be opposed, and we must assert
the right to diversity, in all public and private spheres
and the search for unity must be resisted in political life.
When Hitler rose to power, the German people overinvested
in the idealism which he projected, and the result was a radical
divestiture of responsibility for their lives. Their search
for a kind-of libidinal satisfaction from the spectacle of
fascism had deadly consequences for millions. Is America going
down the same path? Clearly, the vicious assertion of control
over our sexual expressions is a warning signal. The control
of our desire, and the propping of that desire onto ideology
is the next step. If freedom for all peoples is to be obtained,
the left must join forces and oppose the persecution of gays
and lesbians. If they fail to do so, if their belief remains
libidinally attached to the image of the ideal,
they will surely fail.
1 - A comprehensive
state civil rights bill that forbids discrimination on the
grounds of sexual orientation has been introduced in the New
York State Legislature for the past twenty years but has never
gotten onto the Senate floor.
2 - "Common Ground,"
organized by the New York Foundation for the Arts and the
Buffal;o Arts Council, October 1-2, 1990, Buffalo, New York.