The Value of Censorship

What is the value of censorship? Here are two reasons why artists might be pleased to find institutions exercising censorship...

It is a commonly held belief that censorship is bad for the arts.  The argument goes something like this: censorship amounts to telling someone what they can or cannot say, or what they can or cannot do.  For the arts to flourish, human beings need to be free to explore all possibilities, and to express without fear their raw and authentic thoughts and emotions.  Not only do censorship and the arts appear conceptually opposed to one another, but it is also easy to find historical examples that “prove” the detrimental effects of censorship upon the arts (e.g. Nazi Germany and Communist China).  Therefore, censorship must be incompatible with the arts.

I am not entirely convinced by this argument, and hopefully you are not either.  While it is easy to poke holes in the argument that all censorship is detrimental to the arts, I want to  propose two reasons why artists might be pleased to find institutions exercising censorship.

First, constraints upon artistic creativity can actually be a catalyst for discovery and invention.  Sociologist Jon Elster compares artistic creativity to Ulysses as he sails past the Sirens.[1]  Ulysses’ binds himself to the mast of his ship, and so achieves a set of parameters that allow him to appreciate the Siren song without succumbing to an irrational decision that would send him to his death.  Similarly, artists often place constraints upon themselves, or accept external constraints, that help them to perceive the significant and valuable aspects of their work.  Sometimes these constraints can be trivial (such as George Perec’s choice to write La Disparition without the letter ‘e’), but more often artists accept the constraints of tradition, social convention and a disciplined work schedule to help them make those spontaneous, original and interesting works of art we value so much.

At the heart of Elster’s comparison with Ulysses is the idea that freedom flourishes in constraints.  Such a view of freedom is remarkably compatible with the very biblical concept that Christians are to bind themselves to Christ, that is, become “slaves of God.”[2]  Christian theology has always asserted that, through a deep commitment to love and serve the triune God, Christians actually realize, rather than squelch, their freedom.

Second, in a society that exercises censorship, words and actions still matter.  I recently watched a fascinating interview of Slavoj Žižek (Slovenian “rock star of philosophy”) and Julian Assange (infamous founder of WikiLeaks) moderated by Amy Goodman (  I was astonished when Assange, the poster boy for radical free speech, claimed that censorship is actually a sign of the health of a society.  His argument was that only those in absolute power can ignore anything that is being said, but censorship shows that the words and actions of a society’s members actually make a difference. Žižek, largely in agreement with Assange, pointed out that China recently ‘discouraged’ TV plots including alternate universes or time travel because, according to Žižek, the government does not want its citizens to consider other possible ways of living.  Institutions only exercise censorship in response to a perceived threat, and things are only threatening if they can make a difference.

The Christian church is often criticized for encouraging its members to boycott certain cultural events.  While this approach has often proved foolhardy and overly hasty in the past, Assange and Žižek suggest that the absence of censorship is an even worse option yet; for, in a society where censorship is banned, apathy reigns.  The Christian community is one governed by the love of Jesus revealed in his incarnation, death and resurrection (Phil 2), and in such a community censorship may be a necessary, albeit a problematic and dangerous, component.

[1] Ulysses Unbound (Cambridge University Press, 2009).  For a helpful summary of how Elster’s ideas relate to artistic creativity see Paisley Livingston, “Poincaré’s ‘Delicate Sieve’: On Creativity and Constraints in the Arts,” in Michael Krausz, Denis Dutton and Karen Bardsley, eds., The Idea of Creativity (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 129-49.

[2] As Paul describes himself in Titus 1:1; see also 1 Peter 2:18-25.  For this connection between artistic freedom and Christian freedom see Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music and Time (Cambridge University Press, 2000), 204-245.



  • Jim Watkins is the assistant editor and a regular contributor at Transpositions. Originally, Jim is from southern California and southeastern Texas, but sometimes he feels most at home in the landscape and coffee shops of the Pacific Northwest. He met his wife Emily at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he studied Studio Art (concentration in painting). For his PhD research, he is examining the relationship between divine and human creativity from the perspective of divine kenosis.

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1 Comment

  1. says: Cole Matson

    Not to mention that it may be necessary to self-censor, both for the benefit of one’s audience and one’s fellow performers.

    A painter may self-censor his desire to explore many different objects in a particular painting because he realizes that that particular painting is best served by focus on a single object.

    A performance artist may self-censor his desire to push the bounds of live performance by throwing bodily fluids on his audience without warning because he believes that, though it might express what he is feeling, respect for his audience as fellow human beings comes first.

    An actor may self-censor a new expression of his character that bubbles up instead him during a live performance, because that new expression involves a change in fight choreography that could endanger his fellow performer.

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