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Shades of Gray:


Censorship is a study of gray areas, but there are some things that come from the dark heart of man that are beyond any line. To not censor all things would also be drawing a distinct line. Each person must define his own line; whether that line lies within or without that of society’s is a personal matter. How can you have one standard when inherently everyone draws his or her own line? Very few people say we need to censor everything.

The flag-burning issue raised in Texas vs. Johnson is a form of censorship. The Supreme Court held that flag burning was an expression protected by the First Amendment. Laws that were subsequently passed banning desecration of the flag were also declared unconstitutional. Does this mean I can not crumple up a kid’s drawing of a flag? And why does it necessarily have to be an American flag? Why is desecration of another country’s flag not an issue?

Artist Robert Mapplethorpe’s depiction of children in what could be considered suggestive poses is not inherently pornographic. We see naked children on diaper commercials on television. Does it make it bad if the babies have their legs spread? How much spread is bad? Five degrees? Fifteen degrees apart? How old? How few clothes? You cannot simply apply a formula and compute pornography. Gloria Leonard suggests that "the difference between erotica and pornography is lighting." (Malloy 261). Clearly some pornographic art is a dark area, but legal censorship of it would be a restriction on interpretation.

Other questions arise when we think of the "art" of performer Marilyn Manson. He wrote:

I hung a donkey piñata over the crowd and put a stick on the edge of the stage. Then I would warn, "Please, don’t break this open. I beg you not to." Human psychology being what it is, kids in the crowd would invariably grab the stick and smash the piñata apart, forcing everyone to suffer the consequence, which in this case was a shower of cow brains, chicken livers and pig intestines from a disemboweled donkey. (94)
A normal piñata filled with candy is considered white. A piñata filled with real animal parts is gray. Just because it doesn’t do any good does not mean it is bad. A live animal used as a piñata is definitely black.

People want to do what is taboo. If you tell me not to do something I am going to do it. Psychologists call this the Forbidden Fruit Syndrome. Fundamentally, there are some taboos that should never be violated, for example children being raped on primetime television or a snuff film (a recording of a person actually being killed) being sold at K-Mart. These things usually censor themselves, but not in any official way.

There is some behavior that is indefensible, like human sacrifice. Others as benign as Mickey Mouse need no defense. He may be offensively cute, but no one is about to censor him. Donald Duck has gone 40 years without wearing pants, yet no one seems to want to censor him. He, along with many other things in life, lies in the desolate gray twilight zone between black and white.

Even the Supreme Court has refused to standardize a line between dark gray and black because the line varies by locale. Take incest for example. Clearly it is over the line in our country, but in Bangladesh, it is legal and even accepted. It is like drawing international boundaries in the ocean; the water doesn’t know or care.

Acts such as 2 Live Crew and Marilyn Manson just want to explore the darker part of the gray area. They didn’t cross any lines of their own, but they have crossed other people’s lines. Manson summed up the rationale behind his performance by writing:

All of this (public outrage) inspired me to create my own science project and see if a white band that wasn’t rap could get away with acts far more offensive and illicit than 2 Live Crew’s dirty rhymes. (80)
Some things make more obvious targets for censorship. Music, and indeed art in general, is a very easy target. Tipper Gore started the Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC) to promote parental and consumer awareness of issues in popular entertainment marketed to children. This is a manifestation of the easy target syndrome, which makes people attack easily identifiable vulgarities that are difficult to suppress. But we cannot sedate all the things we hate. The labels that the PMRC pressured recording labels into putting on their albums allow people to draw their own line. If institutionalized censorship is to be applied as was almost the case with the issue of flag burning, according to Ira Glasser, ACLU spokesman, "there will be no way to limit its sweep through the arts." (458).

Mechanical animals and garbage bags filled with intestines hung over the stage were incorporated into the shock value of Manson’s performance art.

Activists thought we were committing acts of cruelty to animals when, in fact, we were committing acts of cruelty to the activists themselves. Only human rights were violated during our shows - against ourselves, against the girls we caged, and against the fans - but nobody seemed to care about that. (117)
Animal rights activists are such easy targets because it doesn’t take much to incite them.

What if in a performance art exhibit, a pure, white lamb is disemboweled for the spectators? What if pink paint is substituted for blood? Does the substitution make the display any less offensive? Does it make it unbearably offensive if it is real blood? What if you use a fake lamb with real blood? How real does the experience have to be before someone is offended and attempts to draw a line? There are many questions raised when viewing objectionable material and a lot of different responses.

Atwood asks: "Is there a clear line between erotica and violent pornography, or are they on an escalating continuum?" (464). Where does it end? There are many shades of gray between black and white. One man’s pornography is another man’s vodka ad. Pornography, in all its nebulous forms, is determined by the person experiencing it. You cannot censor people’s thoughts, interpretations, or imaginations that exist in the dark realm of man’s heart. Maybe some people should be equipped with a warning label, but I guess that idea hasn’t occurred to Tipper Gore yet. We possess the innate ability to do that. It is up to us, the audience, to censor ourselves.