Art, Freedom, and the Politics of Social Justice

June 1, 2018


National Coalition Against Censorship

NCAC's mission is to promote freedom of thought, inquiry and expression and to oppose censorship in all its forms.

Over the past few years, artworks that touch upon painful histories have sparked heated controversies. While the artists behind such works have invariably had a social purpose and sought to tackle the political issues plaguing our present, the works themselves have elicited charges of insensitivity, cultural appropriation, and racism. Many discussions surrounding these works have questioned whether an artist from a dominant racial group has the right to make artworks about a story of core importance to a racial or ethnic group to which they do not belong, or to make use of images, ideas, or characters belonging to the traditions of culturally marginalized groups.

The outrage over such artworks—from South African artist Brett Bailey’s Barbican show “Exhibit B” to Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket” at the 2017 Whitney Biennial and Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” at the Walker Art Center—has contributed to a tense climate in the art world.

Worse than being outsiders, protesters claim, white artists belong to a dominant racial group that continues to structurally privilege itself at the expense of people of color. As such, racially charged artwork produced by white artists is suspect at best; at worst, it perpetuates racism and oppression. Whereas artists have the freedom to produce whatever they wish, the institutions that display such works are held to a different standard of responsibility: one that extends beyond the artist, the artwork and the principles of creative freedom to encompass the community and audiences these institutions serve, as well as the ideals of social justice.

While they welcome protest and critique, free speech advocates draw a line at the removal or destruction of artworks. While they may admit that platforms for speech reflect social inequalities, and that words and images help perpetuate social divisions and racist attitudes, their solution to these problems lies in supporting more speech rather than less. In line with this general principle, in recent controversies involving offense and trauma, free speech advocates have called on institutions to host dialogue and conversation. While they recognize the multiple responsibilities of art institutions, they privilege the open exchange of ideas over any specific social program.

The National Coalition Against Censorship’s Arts Advocacy Program invited artists, curators, and writers to think across disagreements and share their thoughts on the current debate over cultural appropriation. We asked the respondents to be as direct and uncensored as possible.

This roundtable is conceived as an ongoing conversation. We will be publishing commissioned responses to the five initial contributions on a rolling basis over the summer. To be advised of future contributions, subscribe to ArtsEverywhere’s bi-weekly newsletter. If you would like to make a substantive and thoughtful contribution to this conversation, please enter it in the comments section at the bottom of this roundtable. We will be publishing selected comments. We reserve the right to edit any published comments for clarity and length.


Sam Durant

Talking About History

There are many factors contributing to the current climate of tribalism and polarization in North American culture today, most of them a result of long-term historical developments, of social and cultural oppression and violence. Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment both offer convincing arguments for how and why we are where we are today; both of them base these arguments in history.

One contemporary response to the injustices of the past—with significant consequences in the art world—is the turn towards a politics of identity and the claims to ownership of certain cultural expressions. Both are based on personal experience, with an emphasis on the historical trauma affecting the group to which an individual belongs.

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Noelle Garcia

The Feeling: The Freedom to Offend/ The Freedom to Say You Hurt Me/ The Hope You Hear Me

I’m an Indigenous woman, I’m well educated, I’m a mother, I have a good job and people listen to me. Even better, I teach teachers, so there are layers of people that listen to me. I’m just one of many Indigenous people that are being heard.

I wonder why we are being heard now. Not just heard, sometimes supported. When Sam Durant erected “Scaffold” there was an outcry. The Indigenous community was pained because it referenced the gallows used to hang 38 Dakota warriors. Eventually, Durant transferred the intellectual property rights of the work to the Dakota Nation. This act gave the impression that Durant sincerely heard and reacted to the voices of the Indigenous community. A community expressed pain and the artist responded, transforming the art into something different.

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Hou Hanru

Ten Theses Against the Activism of “Good Morals”

4. All complexity, contradiction, uncertainty, imagination, and enigma—or all that renders ART meaningful, beautiful, and powerful, and also “useful”—are reduced and even erased in favor of the spectacular and hence the speculative: that which is easy to identify, “understand,” consume, and become eventually profitable. For “difficult art” it becomes even more difficult to survive, since the institutions and media tend to—or are forced to—embrace the logic of the comfortable, the safe, or the tokenistic, in order to be more popular.

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Alan Michelson

Subject Matters

The recent controversy over the exhibitions by American art institutions of works by white artists depicting traumatic events in the histories of non-whites, during which people of color have stepped forward to register the offensiveness of these representations to their communities, is part of a larger political landscape that includes Idle No More, Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, Decolonize This Place, and other grassroots challenges to entrenched power. As a contemporary Mohawk artist, what surprises me most about the controversy is the fact that as recently as 2017 it came as such a surprise to the artists, curators, and institutions involved. And also that, in some quarters, the challenges were received as threatening calls for censorship, when in fact they were more the opposite—calls for voices against the insidious forms of censorship practiced by white-dominated art institutions on non-white groups. White supremacy, no matter how passively or unwittingly sheltered, is suppression—the silencing of voices and the erasure of presence. Shamefully, the art world is one of its preserves.

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Vanessa Place

The Artist is a Trout

In 1873, Courbet painted La truite (The Trout). The eponymous trout is hooked, on the line and on the rocks, mouth open, eye fixed, bleeding from the gills. It’s dying, which means it’s alive. The Trout was painted between Courbet’s release from prison, where he spent six months for his participation in the 1871 Commune, and his self-exile to Switzerland, where he died of drink in 1877, one day before the first yearly payment of a 33-year fine was due in Paris. It is a portrait of the artist as subject to the judiciary.

I am interested in the position of the trout. Who owns the trout? And does the ownership of the trout depend on what the trout is? Is the trout an image of the trout, the artist, or the fisherman who catches and is thereby also caught up with the fish? For that matter, should art ever be a matter of ownership?

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Boryana Rossa and Oleg Mavromatti

The Bastards: Cultural Appropriation by Default

As artists, we need to take a strategic look at cultural appropriation. Our unique experiences matter to those who value them. They are important to those who are bound by solidarity, to those who love each other. But arguments with friends reduce the strength of resistance. The creation of unity is, in our opinion, more effective for fighting inequality and hate than focusing on how one’s feelings are hurt by an ally and friend.

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Dexter Wimberly

The World You Envision

It is not the job of the curator to try to address people’s trauma. At the same time, every curator should be willing to discuss the rationale for what they’ve done with anyone who’s willing to have a respectful conversation about it. And then, at some point, if both parties are so entrenched in their beliefs that they can’t reach any sort of accord, then they should civilly say, well, we don’t agree on this.

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Karyn Olivier


The hope is for my work to dissect, critique or reimagine our understanding and relationship to these complicated sites—and therefore with the history they represent. I often think of this quote by James Baldwin and my responsibility as an artist: “The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.”

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3 thoughts on “Art, Freedom, and the Politics of Social Justice

  1. Disheartening to see responses that only attempt to justify censorship on the part of people who claim that only they can speak about certain subjects. Charges that “society” is racist, sexist, homophobic (as if nothing has changed in 50 years), the cry to “dismantle” “white supremacy” and “patriarchy” (as if nothing has changed in 50 years), and the call for reparations (which are never going to happen) is just the kind of rhetoric with which white artists love to flagellate themselves. (White artists? Well, yes: when was the last time an intersectional artist was criticized for speaking about a subject?)

    Is this really the National Coalition Against Censorship? The participants in the roundtable weren’t censored, but obviously feel more than justified on ideological grounds to exercise dominion over the thoughts (yes, thoughts) and expressions of others.

  2. Since NCAC has been the rare group to actually protest one of my many censored murals, you have a special place in my heart. But a “thoughtful” discussion on cultural appropriation? Good luck on that!

    Culture and art is produced socially by millions of people over thousands of years. The idea that any self-appointed group has a right to claim domain over art is an attack on artistic and intellectual freedom.

    I say this as the most censored artist in the world, who remains as invisible to the Art World as the workers for whom I proudly paint.

  3. So few comments posted.

    One of the reasons I was drawn to art at an early age was the idea of freedom – the freedom to address any subject with whatever feelings and ideas I could to bring to it. The notion is intrinsic to my idea of art (and the opposite of what passed for art in then Soviet societies). I attended art school in San Francisco in the late 1960s and on, furthering my notions of art’s prerogatives and individual freedom. Of course, I understood actual personal freedom to be a negotiation, not total license; but art was a special preserve. I still have a license plate on my automobile which reads “R-TSTK” (“Artistic” license) – in case I’m stopped for something.

    A telling moment I recall from this same period in my life was watching a televised interview with Maya Angelou by Charlie Rose. She read a passage from “I Know Why the Cages Bird Sings” in which, as a little girl (sent to the store to get something for her mother), she first encounters white people. By the time she was through reading the passage, tears were streaming down my face. Briefly, I had stood in the shoes of this young African-American girl in the American South (I a grown, red-haired white guy), looked through her eyes and also wondered whether white people were in fact dead, something like zombies. They never smiled, or spoke kindly; their skin was drained of color; they seemed to have no love or hearts… this must be what it’s like to be dead. The freckles on my arms flowed together and I momentarily wore a new skin, in which I trembled and cried. This must be art, I may have thought. (Rose, meanwhile, was having trouble getting it; “What do you mean they seemed dead?” he asked – as I recall).

    Angelou was telling her story, but so well that it became mine too. But my story also was represented by those unfriendly, unsmiling white grown-ups, occasionally staring down at the otherness of her. I felt Angelou’s gaze upon me, as well. The story of racism and persecution doesn’t belong only to its victims but also to its perpetrators. And it is equally (if differently) important that they tell it too. History/herstory is our-story. We have to allow artists to address all stories, if only to build bridges within themselves (but hopefully beyond themselves).

    Culture and art has to spread (without being condemned as appropriation). I want to see more non-Jewish, German directors make films about the Holocaust. Non-indigenous people are also connected to and affected by the crimes committed against indigenous peoples. The Emmett Till image was widely published at the insistence of his mother so as to be seen and register in the minds of everyone, and has acquired powerful iconic status. No one owns history nor needs to give permission for another to address it. Attempts to control history, or opinions about it, are undemocratic and art is the last place in which we should find them.

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