Art museum’s censorship destroys its integrity

by Dr. Michael Siegel on September 15, 2011 | Mondoweiss

Oakland’s Museum of Children’s Art (MOCHA) recently announced that it is canceling a planned exhibit of artwork created by Palestinian children living in Gaza because art about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is “not appropriate for an open gallery accessible by all children.” The museum had scheduled the exhibit to begin on September 24 and had promoted it on its web site. The sudden cancellation of the event apparently followed complaints by “pro-Israel” organizations in the Bay Area.

The exhibit, entitled “A Child’s View of Gaza,” features artwork by Palestinian children ages 6-14, most of which was created as part of a psychosocial support program that uses art to help these children heal from the violence they have witnessed and trauma they have experienced. The program is sponsored by the Middle East Children’s Alliance, a Berkeley-based nonprofit humanitarian aid organization that provides food, medicine, clothing, and community and individual support and resources to children in Gaza. The project in question, entitled “Let the Children Heal and Play,” is designed to address the psychosocial needs of children by allowing them to express themselves through art in an effort to help them heal and to avert long-term adverse outcomes, such as “a lifetime of depression, anxiety, and rage.”

The censorship of this exhibit would only be justified if it were a political ploy, such as a collection of artwork obtained by a political organization that was using the children for ulterior motives. However, the evidence is quite clear that this is a truly humanitarian program designed to help these children heal through art therapy. The art represents the original and sincere expressions of these children, and the individual and organization that curated the artwork aim primarily to give the artistic expression of these children an outlet in what is certainly an appropriate venue: a children’s museum.

Ironically, by censoring the exhibit, the Oakland Museum of Children’s Art has itself committed a political ploy, leaving the realm of cultural exhibition and entering the area of politics and cultural repression. By canceling the exhibit, MOCHA is actually the group making a political statement.

This is not the first time art by Palestinian children has been censored. Several years ago, Brandeis University removed from a university art exhibit paintings by Palestinian teenagers that were curated by a Brandeis student as a project for a class entitled “The Arts of Building Peace.” School officials censored the paintings because they were too “one-sided.”

The thinly-veiled arguments that artwork by Palestinian children, curated appropriately by individuals or organizations who are sincerely interested in showcasing artistic expression, is inappropriate because the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is off-limits or the artwork is one-sided disguise an underlying censorship of not only artwork, but of the truth. In fact, that is the real reason for this censorship in the first place: the unwillingness to depict, in any way, the truth about the severe psychological damage done to children who have suffered as a result of Israel’s incursion into Gaza and its blockade.

As a physician who has treated victims of violence and trauma, and as a public health practitioner, I can testify to the enormous public health impact that conflicts like that in the Middle East have on populations and especially on children. This is truly a public health issue. Censoring the effects of violence on children is essentially no different than hiding from the public the fact that a swine flu epidemic is spreading throughout Mexico. Would we censor information about swine flu occurrences in Mexico because we are afraid that providing this information is too political or controversial?

Whether “justified” because of terrorist attacks in Israel or not, the damage done to Palestinians is not a matter of opinion, but of readily verifiable facts. Censoring “A Child’s View of Gaza” creates the exact opposite of what the censors are trying to avoid: providing a platform for a political statement. In essence, MOCHA is using these Palestinian children as pawns in a political maneuver that delivers a clear message about what the public is or is not to believe. MOCHA is essentially contributing toward the suppression of the truth about the effects of the Israeli incursion into, and blockade of Gaza.

Henry Steel Commager wrote: “The fact is that censorship always defeats its own purpose, for it creates, in the end, the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion.”

The Museum of Children’s Art has demonstrated that it has lost its ability to exercise real discretion about the appropriateness of exhibits that it chooses to sponsor. Political objectives, rather than the authenticity and value of the artistic expression inherent in the works, are now the primary criterion for its decisions.

Dr. Michael Siegel is a professor of community health sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health. He conducts research in a variety of public health issues, focuses on tobacco and alcohol use, and maintains a blog on tobacco control policy issues called The Rest of the Story.

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