Censorship is a matter of general interest in political philosophy and any serious study of governance, but it is worthy of some attention in aesthetics. Plato himself raised the prospects of censorship in his conception of the ideal city in The Republic. In that dialogue, two grounds for censorship were advanced: artwork may be banned if it involves lies and falsehood, or for its imitation of evil. For Plato, there is a sense in which all theatre involves lying, for it may involve someone who is not Achilles posing as Achilles and speaking as though he were Achilles. Perhaps it is the link between theatre and posing as someone you are not that the word “hypocrite” is derived from the Greek for a stage actor (hypokrites).

Presumably such a Platonic objection is no longer pressing. We tend today to think that many works of art constitute created worlds and that within these worlds there are new identities. If George plays Claudius in the play Hamlet he is or becomes Claudius in that Shakespearean world. George does not thereby lie when he acts as Claudius. But many today still do share Plato’s reservations about the display and promotion of what is thought to be evil. When, if ever, should the content of a work of art or its likely effect justify its public (or even private) censorship? Here are some works that are ostensibly art, but that we may wish to prohibit: films in which “actors” are actually murdered; actual (non-simulated) rape; actual child abuse; child pornography; actual torture; bestiality and other abuses of animals; acts that seem to involve perversion such as consuming excrement, urine, or blood; artwork that tends to promote racism, violence against women, children, homosexuals, and so on. In point of fact, in many countries the content of films and artwork are governed by some restrictive guidelines and some of the above cases would thus involve breaking the law and would involve criminal law (so-called “snuff films” involving an actual killing are films of a murder). Still, there are at least five points to consider in terms of censorship and the philosophy of art.

First, one should bear in mind the importance of “the test of time” in determining the meaning of a work of art. Taking the long view can help us in distinguishing between something that is wrongly or at least prematurely deemed offensive (such as Joyce’s Ulysses which was banned at first) and works that at the time seem harmless but we may come to see as offensive. An example of the latter can be found in the Greek playwright Menander’s work of New Comedy, Epitrepontes. In this play, Charisios marries a woman named Pamphile, who gives birth only five months after the marriage. However, it is discovered that Charisios raped a woman four months prior to his marriage, and that this same woman was in fact Pamphile, thus securing the child’s legitimacy and a happy ending for all. However, such a plot is incompatible with and obscene by today’s standards.

Anthony Savile offers this formulation of the test of time:

“A well-chosen autographic or allographic work of art securely survives the test of time if over a sufficiently long period it survives in our attention under an appropriate interpretation in a sufficiently embedded way. This condition will only be satisfied if the attention that the work is given is of a kind that generates experience relevant to its critical appreciation and attracts the attention that is given to it in its own right.” (Savile 1982,  11-12)

Taking a long view may help stabilize the judgment over a work’s value. (Of course, to have a role in the test of time, a work needs to be observed or read and so cannot simultaneously be uncensored.) Still, some effort to conceive of works beyond their immediate context seems wise.

Second, some art activists seem to conflate the difference between censorship and not funding the arts. In the United States, this distinction went underappreciated with the controversy over the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe (see www.mapplethorpe.org/ foundation.html). In his case, public money was not used to exhibit his work. While perhaps regrettable, this is different from censorship. In general, it seems that the case for censorship would need to be stronger than the case for not funding artwork. This is because censoring prevents the artwork from its having a hearing or viewing at all, whereas for a government or institution not to fund work does not prevent the work from finding other support.

Third, your views on censorship will inevitably have to raise the question of the relation of the right and the good. Concepts of rights like the right to free speech do not explicitly enjoin that the speech must be used for what persons (the speaker and others) think of as good. Some philosophers accept a presumption of liberty principle, according to which the bare fact that an act is freely intended is a reason not to prevent it. This is only a presumption, for these philosophers insist that the presumption can and should be overridden in many cases. Still, if you begin with a presumption of liberty principle, censorship will always be introduced only after meeting the burden of proof. Some philosophers, on the other hand, hold that goodness is primary and rights are subordinate to what is deemed good. This theory of values tends to be more open to using the law (and hence using censorship) as an instrument of education, guiding citizens to what is deemed good.

Fourth, at the end of the day, one may need to balance a perceived ideal with pragmatism. Perhaps mass industrially produced pornography (magazines, internet, etc.) is inherently degrading to consumers, producers, and the “actors” or “performers” involved.  One may even come to believe with some evidence that such pornography indirectly fuels abusive tendencies and patterns of exploitation. Even so, if banning such pornography would only set up an aggressive, worse black market that would be even more profoundly damaging, there may be pragmatic reasons to tolerate it.

Fifth, it has been argued that if a work of art should be censored on (for example) moral grounds, it makes no sense to make an exception when the work has considerable aesthetic merit. Bernard Williams writes:

“The idea of making exceptions to a censorship law for works with artistic merit seems, in fact, essentially confused. If one believes that censorship on certain grounds is legitimate, then if a work of artistic merit does fall under the terms of the law, it is open to censorship: its merits, indeed, may make it more dangerous, on the grounds in question, than other works. If one believes in freedom for artistic merit, then one believes in freedom, and accepts censorship only on the narrowest of grounds.” (Williams 1992, 68)

Williams’ thesis is open to challenge. In his ideal city as outlined in The Republic, Plato censored great tragic art for the young, but he allowed these great and valuable works to be read by the mature.

In wrapping up these brief observations about censorship, I have to highlight the historically (and current) healthy and vital role that art and aesthetics can play in challenging the status quo, pushing against the boundaries of a comfortable social order. For instance, artwork and aesthetics played a key role in the case against slavery in Britain. In censoring art, we should be cautious that we may be averting our gaze from what we need as a challenge tow hat can be entrenched dogmas and unexamined assumptions.