Should artistic expression receive the same degree of legal protection as other types of speech, such as political, religious, commercial, or educational speech? Should it enjoy less freedom, or more? Michael Adams, a Plan II Honors junior majoring in Asian Cultures and Languages and Biology, penned this first-prize winning response during the Spring 2014 Freedom of Speech Essay Contest.
In the modern day and throughout recent history, the question of the distribution of liberty among the forms of speech and expression has driven contention, debate, and friction among the factions desiring complete artistic freedom, and those desiring to limit it. In the realm of the world, the complete freedom of speech, be it political, religious, or artistic, is a cultural anomaly; many societies find themselves mired in abstractions of censorship preventing free artistic expression at the expense of cultural development. The controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei represents one individual in the fight for free artistic expression in the world today. He intentionally provokes the Chinese government as well as the Chinese populace in order to make a statement demonstrating the suppression occurring as a result of Chinese government policies. In another sphere, Miley Cyrus employs the idea of freedom of expression to its threshold, making statements ardently condemned by individuals who have different tastes and perhaps moral values. Jean-Jacques Rousseau offers a counter idea to complete artistic freedom to be refuted by ideas and developments of modern artists. The freedom of artistic expression should have extended to it the same degree of legal freedom granted to all other forms of speech; to forgo complete freedom of artistic expression would result in the suppression of human creativity as well as the suppression of the other types of speech for the artistic tradition closely identifies with all of the other forms of free speech.
The eminent Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei works at the pinnacle of the freedom of art in our day, working proactively, provocatively, and politically. Modern China presents an astoundingly important example in the study of the freedom of artistic expression in the world today due to several factors: its recent history of suppression and its current titular censorship intermingled with cases of real censorship constitute a poisonous environment for art. Ai Weiwei has been described as “the most powerful artist in the world,” in what some predict will “become the most powerful nation in the world” (Stevens). Ai must therefore “hold up a mirror both to China’s failings and its potential” (Stevens). Contradiction and controversy dot the life of Mr. Ai. Some of his more famous pieces such as Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern in London, present the idea of China critically, in response to its sheer population and the magnitude of every entity associated with the nation. The installation includes one hundred million individually hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds, evocative of “the sublime power of the mass and the unique singularity of each individual seed” (Sorace). Ai makes a political statement about the new Chinese status quo; people en masse, materialism en masse, yet human potential en masse. Another piece, Fragments, displayed in a show in 2005, creates a map of China from the fragments of ancient Qing era temples (Stevens). The idea of Ai is a criticism of the present on the back of the future. He questions the current status quo of China vehemently, yet not disruptive in a physical sense. Passive protest underscores a method of expression he feels is requisite to the health of the Chinese society. Ai seeks to disturb the myopia of the Chinese populace and peacefully annoy, through art, the government over the mass.
The Case of Ai Weiwei establishes a basis for one purpose of art: to question, visually and politically, a society. Just a socrates called himself a “Gadfly of Athens” (Plato 30e), Ai Weiwei, it could be said, is the Gadfly of Beijing. The suppression of his art has come in many untenable forms which ultimately embarrass and expose his government on the international art and political stage. Artistic freedom serves as an indicator of the health of a society at its root. A society able to withstand the condemnation of a single artist or stand in the wake of “Gadfly” in any form proves stability at the core. A government which must scramble to cover an artistic exposé of its wrongs depicted by the ideas of the same artist time and time again substantiates the idea of fragility; Ai, teaching artistically the invisible (to domestic Chinese) ideologies of his government, realizes the inherent fragility of the new order. By suppressing Ai’s artistic freedom, China likewise suppresses free political and educational speech, a dangerous action with putrid moral consequences and the dissemination of sentimental mistrust of a government amongst the people, if they find out. A society should grant the same legal freedom to artistic speech as it does to any other type of speech, pending it grants such freedoms in the first place. A sick, stagnant population may be created through censorship of free art, speech, and education. Ai notes that “‘education should teach you to think, but [the government] just wants to control everyone’s mind.’ What the regime is most afraid of, he says, is ‘free discussion’” (Stevens). Art is the spark of such free discussion.
A discussion of the morals, values, and culture of a society frequently arises from the production and dissemination of new art forms and artists; some discussions prove disturbing to some, constructive to others. Artists throughout recent history have attributed truth to the saying that “art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” An imperative of artistic purpose arises in this short collection of words, yet art serves so many other purposes as well. Perhaps a proof of the saying comes in the, what some would classify as disturbing, form of the music, persona, and performance of the American pop star Miley Cyrus. Whether or not one considers the productions of Cyrus art is contentious in itself; for the purposes of this paper and according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, art may be defined as an entity “intentionally endowed by their makers with a significant degree of aesthetic interest, often surpassing that of most everyday objects” (Stanford). Cyrus produces art. Those who condemn the girl who carries “the torch of sexually provocative pop stars,” ultimately call for the condemnation, suppression, and censorship of art (Feeny). Cyrus has progressed in her short career to exist at the far bounds of what we consider art and certainly what many consider negative and degrading art. Rather than culturally constructive art of, say, Louis Armstrong or Ansel Adams, Cyrus’s art tends toward the crude to what many consider offensive. Miley Cyrus’s sex-laced, drug influenced music videos in which she is often promiscuously (if barely) dressed incite rage in the more culturally conservative critics of American art. Parents of children who idolize such pop stars may also not appreciate the provocative artistry of the pop star. Fundamentally, a discussion of morals, ideologies, and cultural direction arises from the controversial figure, a healthy piece of a well functioning society and something that Ai Weiwei’s China cannot have due to incomplete freedom of art. A fundamental truth regarding the nature of art stems from such ideas; suppression of art destroys the ability of a society to communicate, even if some may consider the art destructive. Such destructive art, in the eyes of a particular group or individual, must remain on an even playing field as other forms art, for what, excepting content and form, differentiates pictorial art in the form of a Picasso painting from performance art in the form of a Miley Cyrus video? A society should never differentiate art based upon a measure of disturbance, crudeness, or distaste. The experiment of free artistic expression as demonstrated by Cyrus underscores the need of free speech; discussion is healthy and discussion often stems from art.
The implications of producing provocative, crude, or even bad art in the eyes of some may very well end up tainting a society at its core; Jean-Jacques Rousseau makes that very contention. The French enlightenment thinker wrote of the implications that the mass dissemination of the artistic production process would have as a consequence of total artistic expression in a free society. Because of the intrinsic human desire for admiration and applause, an artist “will lower his genius to the level of his time, and will prefer to compose ordinary works which are admired during his lifetime instead of marvels which would not be admired until long after his death” (Rousseau 53). With the power and tool of freedom of expression, Rousseau foresees the downfall of the great artistic tradition of Western Europe. He calls for the reduction of the privilege of artistic expression to the few whom we may call timeless masters: Michelangelo, Monet, or van Gogh among others. In response to the art of today, Rousseau would perhaps applaud Ansel Adams, Andy Warhol, or Ai Weiwei for such mastery of their craft. Likewise, Rousseau would likely comparatively condemn Miley Cyrus on the grounds of producing low art, disruptive of the cultural tradition of popular art, and art which has become corrupted on the grounds of appealing to the whims of the cultural epoch. A poison to society at large, ephemeral art, Rousseau would say, “has corrupted our morals…and impaired purity of taste” (Rousseau 62). The consequence of total artistic freedom leads to art at the whim of a society, yet art at the whim of society may represent cultural development and the creation of dialogue among the participants in such a society. Artistic freedom enables a culture to develop itself from the ground up; it enables the culture to stay malleable, to ebb and flow with the changes of time. An artistic tradition confined to art which is bred to last for centuries with little appeal in the present may never attain its full potential. In defense of the tradition of freedom, America may serve as a fine example. Of course popular art and music will cater to the fashions of the day; Miley Cyrus may again serve as a prime example. Catering to the desires of the day often commercializes art, a commercial freedom granted to corporations unsuppressed as a foundational right of capitalism. While Rousseau might criticize the commercialization of art, no individual is forced to purchase any commercialized art; he may stick to the art of high repute. Aside from popular and commercial art, modern America has produced lasting schools of art, architecture, and individual artists of high regard culturally in years past and in the modern day. The Hudson Valley School of art in New York and the eminent twentieth century German American architect Mies van der Rohe evolved out of the free conversation of American art which remain engaged as styles today. Entire ideologies of art which, especially in the case of the Hudson Valley School, have maintained prominence, demonstrate that Rousseau’s idea about the dissolution of lasting art may only partially ring true. Through the popular artistic whims of the day may develop lasting traditions of really good art. Freedom of artistic expression may produce plentiful as well as lasting art which impresses a place in the cultural tradition.
Complete artistic freedom proves equally as important, and even a compliment to, all the other forms of freedom of speech. In a healthy society, complete freedom of artistic expression coincides with the freedom of political. educational, religious, and commercial speech, for art is often the medium through which these other forms are expressed. As demonstrated by Ai Weiwei, dissidence and the demonstration of political action through art is a powerful means of communication in the international forum that is art. Art moves where words fail. Inherent interconnection between the forms of free speech and the idea that human creativity can come through art necessitates that legal freedoms granted to the other forms of art be granted equally to the complete freedom of artistic expression. All well-developed, sophisticated, and ideologically sound societies have little incentive to censor any type of art; in such places a fair distribution of liberty can exist. Suppression of free speech and art may prove to be the weightiest challenge for many modern societies today. To decide in favor of suppression continues a tradition of stagnation; to decide against opens a new tradition of acceptance, understanding, and unencumbered liberty.
The essay contest is organized in conjunction with the college’s Free Speech Dialogues, created to encourage thoughtful, informed discussion among students. Each semester, three nationally prominent panelists are invited to offer varying perspectives on free speech issues. The essay contest is open to UT Austin undergraduate students, with $1,500 awarded for first prize.