“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” — Virginia Woolf
“Never do anything against conscience even if the state demands it.” — Albert Einstein
Many of us have come to identify Trumpian America as a kind of mirror image of Jacksonian America of the 1830s. They both, for example, shared a common distrust of any form of expertise, aggressively insisting instead that all important functions are simple enough to be performed by any ordinary citizen. And above all, they both had a strong desire to overthrow whatever they thought represented the establishment. We’ve come to realize, I think, that large parts of the population harbor nativist prejudices, which are surprisingly easy to make come to the surface.
Whatever way we may think of how democracy functions in America, we should remember that it is still a relatively new concept and should be thought of as an ongoing experiment that must be reborn for every generation. On the one hand, there is a strong conservative bent in American thought, and on the other America is at odds with its aspirations in conserving, reforming, and constructing, partly because of an increasing sense of rootlessness throughout much of society. As the nation has grown more ethnically diverse, homogenous communities have been becoming more heterodox. And as the national standard of living has risen, and people take for granted certain conveniences and comforts that they do not want to lose, a certain sense of paranoia has intensified on both sides of the political spectrum, on the left and on the right.
All of this, of course, has tremendous consequences for our cultural life—for the creative practices of our artists, writers, poets, dancers, and musicians—for whom questions regarding aesthetic morality are dearly held in their hearts and their consciences. This inevitably brings up the subject of the culture war that has been brewing since the 1920s, when urban and rural American values came into a clash, and which took on different shapes in the 1950s—a decade when many Americans enjoyed the post-WWII boom. That was also a time that was marked by both the fervently conservative anti-Communism of Joseph McCarthy and the progressively liberal civil rights movement at home, while abroad the extension of the fight against Communism in Korea, and eventually in Vietnam, created a number of underlying political divisions among Americans. By the 1960s, as the civil rights movement coincided with the anti-war protests that in part gave birth to the women’s rights movement, conflict, fracture, and dissent were unavoidable.
The conflict between censorship and freedom of expression, which grew out of the constant friction between the progressive left and the conservative right, produced several remarkable people who had stood the ground of their conscience and paved the way for all of us in the creative communities. For example, Barney Rosset of Grove Press successfully sued the US Post Office after it tried to suppress his unexpurgated edition of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1959. And in 1964, Rosset fought all the way to the US Supreme Court, when he defended his publication of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, along with dozens of booksellers across the country who distributed it. The Court ruled that the novel was not obscene. (Rosset also won legal battles on the publications of William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch in 1962 and the distribution of the Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow) in the late 1960s, on First Amendment grounds.) In the same year, Jonas Mekas was equally fierce in his support of freedom of artistic expression during the same decade. Mekas was the first who reviewed Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures and organized a theatrical premiere of Smith’s groundbreaking film that foregrounded the fluidity of gender, sexuality, and identity, for which he was arrested along with fellow filmmakers Ken Jacobs and Florence Karpf, for violating New York’s obscenity law. And without skipping a beat, Mekas, while awaiting trial, projected Jean Genet’s only film, Un Chant d’Amour, for the second time. As a result, on June 12, 1964 the New York court sentenced Mekas, Jacobs, and Karpf to sixty days in the city workhouse. Similarly, for many of our fellow artists who have lived through the decade of 1980s, would remember too well Jesse Helms (the Republican senator from North Carolina) and his condemnation of the NEA for supporting artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Karen Finley, and Andres Serrano, whose works contained explicit sexual or religious evocations.
What is the point here, we may ask? Should we simply concur that while the left may have jump-started the cultural war conflicts, the right has been far more aggressive in politicizing them, both in legislative chambers and in their political campaigns, then be surrendered with passivity? Or is it imminently essential that we, in our artistic communities, think and work clearly together to fight against any form of censorship, such as the banning of books from libraries and the censoring of which subjects can be discussed in public schools, as is so blatantly occurring in certain states even as I write. We should also act in response to the recent ruling where the Supreme Court has sided with the photographer Lynn Goldsmith against the Andy Warhol Foundation, in a case where centuries old freedom that artists have had to quote parts of the works of other artists has been put in doubt.
Here, we are reminded of Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous term self-interest rightly understood as being about Americans voluntarily joining together in associations to further the interests of the group and, in doing so, to thereby serve their own interests. The community of artists in all mediums must stand together against all forms of censorship and constraints of expression. Only by acting as a community can we ensure our rights as individuals.
In solidarity with love, courage, and cosmic optimism as ever,
Phong H. Bui
P.S. This issue is dedicated to the memory of our two friends: the great novelist and writer Martin Amis (1949–2023), and legendary filmmaker Kenneth Anger (1927–2023) whose works brought us the brevity of profound pessimism and subversion of human nature. We send our deep condolences to both of their immediate families, friends, and admirers across the world. We send a monumental congratulations to our beloved mentor Agnes Gund for having been presented by Laurence des Cars (director of the Louvre Museum), on behalf of the French government, the medal of the Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. Also, we would like to send our warm birthday salute to our remarkable friends Alba Clemente and Elizabeth Schreier. Lastly, we’d like to welcome Lamyae Bouzidi, Maisie Molot, and Ifeanyi Odita to our summer 2023 internship program, all of whom we look forward to working with on many forthcoming and exciting projects.