Friday, September 05, 2008

The Big Chill

In the early 1990s, a poster stating “Fear No Art” appeared. That image has stayed in my consciousness since then. I wonder often at the fear some people exhibit toward the visual art or the written word. Surprisingly for me, both educated and uneducated people seem to acknowledge the power of art to transform us, seemingly beyond our control.

In reading about Sarah Palin today, I felt a chill down my spine as I read this passage from Time:

Stein says that as mayor, Palin continued to inject religious beliefs into her policy at times. "She asked the library how she could go about banning books," he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them.
"The librarian was aghast." That woman, Mary Ellen Baker, couldn't be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to fire Baker for not giving "full support" to the mayor.

I’ve previously talked about the chilling effect that religion had on the time of Chaucer. Sarah Durant’s book, The Birth of Venus, deals with the climate created by Catholic Dominican reformer Girolamo Savonarola.

In 1481 or 1482, Savonarola was sent to Florence to preach. Immediately he began opposing the Renaissance attraction for pagan works and the perceived immoral life of the Florentine society and Lorenzo de Medici’s court. Becoming obsessed with the Book of Revelation, he spent from 1489 on trying to save souls from the Apocalypse he felt was immediate. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Many persons brought articles of luxury, playing-cards, ornaments, pictures of beautiful women, the writings of pagan and immoral poets, etc., to the monastery of San Marco [where Savonarola was prior]; these articles were then publicly burned. A brotherhood founded by Savonarola for young people encouraged a pious, Christian life among its members. Sundays some of this brotherhood went about from house to house and along the streets to take away dice and cards from the citizens, to exhort luxuriously dressed married and single women to lay aside frivolous ornament. Thus there arose an actual police for regulating morality, which also carried on its work by the objectionable methods of spying and denunciation.

During the 1497 carnival, Savonarola organized fifteen story-high pyres in Piazza della Signoria, onto which his followers threw “carnival masks, rich feminine ornaments, mirrors, cosmetics, cards and dice, perfume, books of poetry and on magic, musical instruments, and worldly paintings where female bodies were displayed unclothed.” Botticelli, a very sensitive soul, was so impressed (or so scared) by Savonarola that he threw many of his paintings on the bonfires. Among the works burned were Boccaccio’s Decameron and the works of Ovid. The spectacle became known as the Bonfires of the Vanities.

Savonarola’s criticisms of the Church in Rome eventually led to his excommunication in 1497, and his subsequent execution by hanging in May 1498, after which his body was burned.

In 1933, it wasn’t the Church promoting the burning of books and ideas, it was German students. Nazi Minister of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels began an attempt to regulate the arts to bring them into line with Nazi goals. Organizations were purged of Jews and others considered politically or artistically suspect. On 6 April 1933, the German Student Association’s Main Office for Press and Propaganda called for a nationwide “Action against the Un-German Spirit,” eventually culminating on 10 May, in many university towns, in the burning of over 25,000 volumes considered “Un-German.” Students marched in torchlight parades, bands played, songs were sung, “fire oaths” were taken and the left was silenced one way or another. Some of the banned authors included Bertolt Brecht, Lion Feuchtwanger, Alfred Kerr, and Americans Ernest Hemingway and Helen Keller.

Moying Li in Snow Falling in Spring describes the rampaging Chinese Red Guard of the Cultural Revolution in 1968 who break into her home and force her father to destroy his collection of “Western” books.

Book banning and burning follows much the same philosophy as that of the ancient Egyptians—if it’s not there to see, it didn’t exist. Pharaohs often had inscriptions from previous rulers recarved and their names inserted. Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, in 221 BCE, took the same tact when he ordered the burning of classic works and histories, fearing that they might undermine his authority.

A sobering poster from World War II from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum shows a book with the headline: “Books cannot be killed by fire.” And under the image of the book and burnings is the slogan, “Books are weapons in the war of ideas.”

To learn more about chilling of our minds, start here to learn the history of book burning through the ages.

And if you need any more frightening image of repression of art, check out the following images of the Hitler book burnings. Are these the past or our future?

1 comment:

Steve S. said...

I agree with you one hundred percent that censorship by the government is wrong. However, It would seem that we as a society have put ourselves in a position to be censored. Let me explain.

I have a child in middle school. Even though he reads a great deal, there are still some books that I will not allow him to read yet. The themes or imagery in them are what I would describe as too intense for his maturity level. So I am censoring what he can read and as a parent it is my responsibility to make sure he is able to handle the things he is exposed to. You would probably agree that there are limits to what should be available in a school library. I'm pretty sure that you don't want children looking at things like pornographic magazines or intensely hate-filled publications. That's just simple common sense. Now comes the gray area. You and I differ on what is acceptable and what is not. Who gets to decide? We have built a school system that is run by the government and, therefore, the government is the decision-maker as to what is acceptable. We the people decide who will represent us which means the majority of people that votes for elected officials, in essence, makes the decision. Gov. Palin was simply reflecting what she thought the majority of voters wanted.

So what is the answer? Take the government out of our schools. Allow people to send their children to whatever schools they choose and take the ability to censor from the government and put it back into the hands of the parents to use as they see fit.