Public Museums & Censorship

Public Museums and Censorship

Tibor R. Machan

Is there a difference between censorship and selectivity? In a private gallery or museum the owners or curators must always be selective. There isn’t infinite, unlimited room available to place all the art that might be exhibited. Good judgment is part of the job of management. Not unlike including versus excluding columns and other materials in magazines and newspapers and chapters or stories in collections, or stocking libraries, such editing is not censorship. The latter would involve some public authority imposing his or her decision on the owners/editors. Exercising professional judgment and authority isn’t censorship.

It is different when it comes to public museums or other public offerings. Reportedly some time ago Brooklyn, NY, deputy mayor, Joseph J. Lhota, who never went to see the paintings nevertheless made decisions about which were to be included and excluded from the Brooklyn Museum, decisions that turned out to displease some citizens. Supposedly just hearing about the materials was enough for Lhota who tried to make the museum remove ‘Holy Virgin Mary’ by Chris Ofili (a portrait initially accepted by the museum authorities) that contained elephant dung and images of genitalia in an eight-foot-tall portrait of the Virgin Mary, a semi-abstract collage that had been hanging at the museum.

Was Lhota engaged in censorship or the responsible supervisory work of a public official? There is no way to know. The reason is the radical yet entirely reasonable notion that in the last analysis there should be no public museums as all any more than there should be public churches or bakeries! For one, no decisions such as those that fall upon the curators can be made in the name of “the public.”

Even if one rejects the idea that beauty or artistic merit lies in the eyes of the beholder–in other words, even if there are objective standards of artistic excellence or merit–those aren’t the job of public officials to deploy. What is artistically worthwhile may not be subjective but it is highly varied, not uniform. But even if it were uniform, it would not be right for public authorities to meddle in art criticism, just as it isn’t right for them to adjudicate among different religions or moral systems. In a bona fide free country such tasks are all supposed to be privatized!

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