The Post in Which I Confess Again My Love of Sharpies & Probably Ruffle Some Feathers

Today is Hoshana Rabba, the last day of Sukkot, the Jewish Festival of Booths. In keeping with the more lenient final days of the holiday, my family has been trekking all over Southern California on outings. Today, I’m cooking, so between the challah baking and the vegetable roasting, I’d like to share a few thoughts with my readers.

A Writer’s Quandry

el pueblo de los angeles

The Avila Adobe, the oldest building at the Pueblo.

Yesterday, we visited El Pueblo de los Angeles, the original non-Indian settlement here in L.A. Last year, the Pueblo welcomed a new addition to its site on Olvera Street — an interpretive center for the América Tropical mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros that appears near the roof of what’s known as “the Italian Building.”

When the mural was unveiled in 1932, it immediately fell victim to controversy because of its anti-imperialist sensibilities. The most “offensive” images on the right half of the mural were quite literally whitewashed not long after it’s first exhibition, with the remainder of the mural being painted over four years later.

I was aghast as I listened to and read the details of the story. A white socialite pushed to remove an artist’s genuine expression of the Latino experience because it offended her political and social sensibilities.

Now, here’s the seemingly ironic part of the situation. I have a web page devoted to a “kosher reading list” and elsewhere have confessed to censoring my kids’ reading materials. My husband and I have effectively banned TV, Disney movies & Romeo and Juliet from our home because we don’t like their effects on children (see my comment in this link to the excellent post by Pop Chassid).

Yes, I am a self-described censor.

A lot of artists and writers are pretty disgusted with those of us who wield sharpies and scissors when we see naked people, dirty words, and such. They probably hate it when I phone billboard owners to complain about billboards I deem inappropriate because they contain images of naked people and are placed on the same block as my kids’ schools or over a synagogue.

I’ve recently seen a spate of Fear No Art T-shirts and bumper stickers. The people displaying these T-shirts and bumper stickers want to protect others from people like me.

Feel free to throw some rotten tomatoes at me now.

In short, my brain is housing two very contradictory ideas:

In one corner, you have the parent-&-teacher me, wielding my scissors and silver sharpie (two layers in silver more effectively covers print in most magazines than the black kind, I’ve learned from experience doctoring my kids’ National Geographics).

In the other corner, you’ll find the other me, the artist so adamantly advocating self-expression.

Here’s the resolution to the seeming contradiction in my behavior. It is a long-held belief, but heretofore, unexpressed by me in public.

I don’t believe that governments should prevent books from being written and published, short of extreme examples that are already illegal to publish and distribute in the U.S. Artistic production should not be controlled. That’s how totalitarian governments control their enemies, after all, and that’s why the Founding Fathers created the First Amendment.

However, I think that parents and teachers should use their best judgment, consumer power, and reasonable application of office supplies to guide the viewing and reading of their children and students. In my eyes, artists (and people who call themselves artists) have the right to express themselves, but not to foist their work on my children.

Okay, I can hear the objections of some readers out there:

What about that public mural? The one I described at the top of this post? The one that’s there for every child in L.A. to see?

While political self-expression is generally over the heads of kids (even after our visit to America Tropical, I doubt my two younger kids understand the political context that sparked the fuss over the mural), violent or sexually-charged images and profanity have a way of rubbing off on children. Those images and words cannot be erased, nor can they be argued with in a balanced way, as can political opinions or other forms of intellectual expression.

You’ve read a lot about my opinions here. Will you please share yours? Add your thoughts about censorship and artistic freedom in the comments below.

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8 thoughts on “The Post in Which I Confess Again My Love of Sharpies & Probably Ruffle Some Feathers

  1. You might be more shocked by my reply than I was by your post: I AGREE. I am completely against censorship. But I don’t mean by that that children or even all adults should be exposed to everything. This is the foundation of my attraction to media literacy. Parents should guide their children’s exposure to media and it should be based on the child, not arbitrary rules dictated by some unknowing “They.” (It seems like a basic part of teaching your kids values, too.) Teachers should also guide the exposure as they are charged with helping children developing the ability to think critically.

    It’s important for all of us to understand that media is something we consume and it informs (misinforms) the way we understand the world. You have your kosher reading list; my mother was upset that I loved Stephen King and Sweet Valley High books because she was a children’s librarian and they weren’t up-to-snuff. In both cases, your children are learning, and I learned, values from those boundaries. I think that boundaries, as long as they come with a willingness to discuss, aren’t automatically the same thing as censorship.

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    • Cy says lots of smart things. 🙂 You do, too! I enjoyed your article last week in Brain, Child about developing Helplessness vs Independence in our kids (which a lot of us struggle with) and really appreciated your post about Bar Mitzvahs. G-d willing, we’ve got our first to plan less than two years away. The budget will be extremely tight, and our child tends to be anxious. I’m a little freaked out.

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  2. I think you’ve hit upon a key point in the age-old argument of censorship versus the right to free self-expression: although artists should have the right to create whatever they want, the “average citizen” should have an equal right to decide if they wish to view these paintings, movies, books, billboard advertisements, etc. On a practical level, it’s none of my business what an art collector buys for his private collection. But I can choose not to bring a book or DVD into my home. And I can certainly call the billboard company to complain if an advertisement isn’t appropriate for my neighborhood.

    A museum, though, is a gray area. On the one hand, I can choose not to go to it at all or avoid a certain exhibit. On the other hand, most museums are at least partially funded with taxpayers’ money, including yours and mine, so we are all funding what some of us might consider to be art that goes against our values. So how can we resolve the artist vs. average citizen dilemma?

    I think the worst solution is to destroy an artist’s work, as was done in your example of the El Pueblo de Los Angeles. If you don’t like something, “vote” with your feet and your wallet and support the venues that more closely reflect your values. Use your Sharpies to create something better, not destroy.

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    • Your museum example is a really interesting one. When I take the family to LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), we have a whole list of paintings we love — “Daniel in the Lions’s Den” by Tanner, Matisse’s “La Gerbe,” Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images,” and almost everything in the Japanese Pavilion — but there are all sorts of other images with content that my husband and I object to our children viewing, for a variety of reasons.

      Certainly, there must be some line drawn at a museum. There are a few things that even our relatively liberal society still shuns. And there’s still a matter of who objects to what.

      You can make the argument that purchasing a ticket (although children’s membership is actually free, and each kid can bring in one adult for free) assumes that the visitor assumes some level of responsibility in their consumption of the media on display.

      Also, there’s a mindset at a museum, “I’m here to see other viewpoints, some of which I might not agree with,” which is different than public display of photos naked people writhing on the back of the bench at the bus stop. (The ones supposedly selling jeans. Jeans they might not actually be wearing.)

      Some of those “problematic” sculptures, paintings, and the like are easily avoidable, but others aren’t. Here’s what I’d like to see at museums, libraries, and the like: items that might offend due to violence, sexuality, etc., are put in specially designated areas, with signage: for ___ ages only.

      There actually is a multimedia installation at LACMA like that, I think. At a library, you could have a concrete rubric of what makes a “Teen book” which would have no language, sex scenes, etc., and “YA books” which contain such material…and require parental permission to borrow, much like at a library.

      How does that sound?

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