May 17 2009


Offensive art and censorship

Controversial art may not be the most widely discussed debate, yet the debate regarding censorship and funding of the arts reveal the more ethical and economic aspects of the issue. While major controversies, such as those dealing with the explicit works of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, further perpetuate this debate, the question of whether or not the government should have the right to moderate the “decency” of arts has yet to reach a conclusion. And, furthermore, should the government continue using taxpayers’ money to fund these art projects?


Morally, the status of art is represented through the balance of “freedom of expression and the limits of acceptable behavior” (Source A). To what extent should artists be able to express themselves? Controversial art pieces, such as Andres Serrano’s exhibition, which includes images that feature a plastic crucifix submerged in urine, not only raise the issue of obscenity, but also cultural sensitivity. Opposers question the morality of such artists because of their bold and extreme means of expression and perceive these artists as only “pushing[ing] themselves to make extreme gestures simply in order to be noticed” (Source A).  Yet, from another perspective, perhaps the radicalism of such art pieces stays within ethical boundaries because they “express what is deep or hidden in our consciousness, what we cannot or will not express ourselves” (Source B). It is true that the images “may not always be esthetic … or even civil,” (Source B) but contrary to the interpretation from Source A, Source B argues that the explicitness of some art pieces should be overlooked in order to see the messages portrayed within them. This idea of censorship limits artists, and often propels them to refrain from presenting their true artwork but to “submit work they think conforms to some vague notion of decency standards” (Source C). Should such decency standards be imposed on something as subjective as art? Is it moral in a democracy to “enforce our choice on others” and suppress the expression of artists to protect the general public from blasphemous and offensive artwork? Ultimately, it is difficult to decide the extent that artists should be given their right to freedom of speech when they deliberately choose to create art that is “critical, unflinching, and often dissenting against the majority” (Source C).

Furthermore, the debate on government funding of offensive art highlights the economic side of the situation. The fact that the National Endowment for the Arts funds artists such as Mapplethorpe and Serrano using money from taxpayers contributes greatly to the controversy. Should taxpayers “continue to fork over money to pay for it ["offensive" art]” (Source D), especially when the art they fund is potentially obscene? In complete contrast to Source D, which argues that “public funds, in a democracy, are to be spent for public purposes,” Source E refutes that this “extreme logic” should not give the majority the advantage to “dictate the preferences of the few” (Source E). Using statistics, Source E continues stating that, in actuality, it is “estimated that Federal funds generate at least five dollars, primarily private dollars, for every one government dollar expended.” Supporters of government funding argue that the matter of public interest doesn’t lie in the money used from taxes, but rather the “decision of each of individually, whether or not to see it [art exhibitions]” (Source E). However, with a strong belief that the opinion of the masses overrides tolerance for deviants, Source F believes the extreme measure of eliminating the NEA is best. Similar to Source D, Source F believes that using taxpayers’ money to fund these offensive artists is unnecessary, especially since there is the possibility that private endowment programs can be created to promote and support artists. But it seems almost impossible to reach a compromise because each person has their individual interpretation of the situation. Yet, even with a better representation of how taxpayers perceive this issue, is it fair to favor one side over the other? Furthermore, this leads back to the issue of how morally acceptable it is for taxpayers to either refuse or continue to support the messages of artists which they may or may not agree with.

With the radical art pieces from NEA funded artists, Mapplethorpe and Serrano, the masses have become more aware of controversial art. Of its many aspects, the ethical and economic continue spurring the conflicts surrounding radical art — with ideas of censorship clashing the freedom of expression and struggle to find balance between supporting the majority’s or minority’s opinions. While it is difficult to come to a complete resolution to these perpetual conflicts, it seems best for the masses to, momentarily disregard the issue of government funding and content, and take an introspective look at how “offensive” these art pieces truly are. And from there, they can decide to what extent do they find the artworks offensive (if there is a better way for the artist to express themselves) and choose to either continue or end supporting these artists.

Works Cited

Source A: Kimball, Roger. “Artists Overstate the Effects of Government Regulation.” Ed. Laura K. Egendorf. Censorship. Ed. Stuart B. Miller and Bruno Leone. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven P, 2001. 132-37.

Source B: Glueck, Grace. “Art on the Firing Line.” The New York Times [New York] 9 July 1989. 15 May 2009 <>.

Source C: Mendoza, David C.”The Regulations of Art Threatens Artistic Freedom.” Ed. Laura K. Egendorf. Censorship. Ed. Stuart B. Miller and Bruno Leone. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven P, 2001. 144-47.

Source D: Dornan, Robert K. “Congress Should Not Fund the NEA.” Free speech. Ed. Bruno Leone and Katie De Koster. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven P, 1994. 34-36.

Source E: Brilliant, Eleanor L. “Government Should Fund All Art.” Free speech. Ed. Bruno Leone and Katie De Koster.  San Diego, CA: Greenhaven P, 1994. 65-69.

Source F: Crane, Philip M. “The NEA Should Be Eliminated.” Free speech. Ed. Bruno Leone and Katie De Koster. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven P, 1994. 46-51.

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