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Robert Lederman

Why Art is Speech

Robert Lederman

When Congress passed the first Ten Amendments on September 25, 1789 they were completing the conceptual guidebook for a great social experiment: The United States of America. Whatever criticisms one may have with some of the results of this experiment or the flaws inherent in its writers, the Constitution stands as one of the great documents of human history.

Freedom was a preoccupation of the founders of this republic. Religious and political freedom were neither vague rights they thought might be good to have or side benefits that were added on as a last thought. These were essential to the blessings of liberty and the pursuit of happiness which they saw as human rights.

The purpose of the First Amendment is to prevent the government from limiting our freedom of thought and its expression. Freedom of religion, speech and the press covers the whole range of human thought and the process of exchanging that thought with one's fellow citizens.

The history of thought does not begin with the written word. For thousands of years before any written languages developed, human beings communicated simple and complex ideas by means of symbols. The cave paintings which are at the beginning of most art history books are not idle doodles executed by early men or women to pass the time. They are expressions of their beliefs about the environment they lived in, and possibly, ceremonial communications to whatever powers they believed ruled nature.

Carvings on rock or wood; symbolic funeral arrangements for the dead; decorations on pottery; early forms of jewelry and decorated cloth; all are, like books, paintings and sculptures, expressions of ideas held by their creators.

The early forms of most of today's written languages are evolved from pictograms which preceded them. In some cultures, such as the Chinese and Hebrew, the pictorial origins of their written language are still clearly evident.

Children in every culture learn how to read by associating pictures with sounds and letters of the alphabet and ultimately, words and abstract concepts. Even a great mathematical or scientific intellect often associates images with the advanced thoughts passing through their mind. James Watson, the discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA, envisioned a snake eating its own tail as the spark for his realization. Interestingly, this is one of the oldest and most universally distributed pictorial symbols known to mankind.

When you read the sentence: "The sun was shining in the clear blue sky", a picture or series of pictures is formed in your mind corresponding to the words. Those pictures, rather than the words, are what you are responding to. Even in a non-visual version of the same sentence: "It was a nice day", your mind still generates a picture based on your memory of some nice day, or on your preference of weather conditions that for you, constitute such a day.

The history of art in every culture is a matter of visual, tactile, or auditory communication of ideas, beliefs or emotional states. These states of consciousness have been religious, political or deeply personal. The works of art make it possible for these internal states of consciousness to be shared with others. Religious art, for example, has always been used to communicate the non-visible, metaphysical concepts contained in holy books, to the masses.

Political art, from satiric cartoons to grandiose historical tableaus, tears down or builds up the public images of leaders. In France, during the 1830's, laws were passed which declared that, "Frenchmen have the right to circulate their opinions in published form," but "drawings" were considered such a compelling "incitement to action" that total freedom in this regard was not allowed. Often, a sharply satirical cartoon or caricature can do a political leader more harm than any written editorial.

In our culture, which is dominated by television, billboards and slick magazine ads, it is the visual image that motivates consumers. The picture of an attractive, slender woman puffing on a gold striped cigarette, is often what induces young women to take up smoking despite having read a continuous flow of information on the health dangers that attend it.

Likewise, it is usually the visual image of healthy young people socializing which dominates beer ads, rather than a written description of the benefits and pleasures of beer drinking.

Even computers, the closest thing we have to a thought machine, have become dominated by visual interface languages, as icons replace numerical and character commands. These visual languages are making computers "user friendly" because they are closer to the way humans actually think.

The piece of paper you are reading this from is covered by a variety of black symbolic markings. Your mind is able, by visually processing and associating these markings with concepts in your memory, to perceive the meaning I am attempting to share with you. Is there any difference between this and a page of symbolic markings known as a drawing? To a non-english speaking person this page is unintelligible, yet if it was a drawing they might be able to comprehend it perfectly.

While the authors of the constitution did not mention art, it's clear that their concern was with speech as communication. The Supreme Court has recognized a wide variety of expressive activities as being protected speech. Demonstrations, flag burnings, advertising billboards, topless dancing, computer programs and even hairstyles have been recognized as forms of speech because they convey ideas and opinions.

The purpose of the First Amendment is to prevent the government from limiting our rights to freedom of speech and expression. To deny artists the right to share their visual ideas in a public forum such as the street, is clearly to deny their First Amendment rights.

Neither the State nor the City of New York has any justifiable or compelling reason to restrict artists from displaying their work on the street, nor do they have a right to require artists to obtain a license to express themselves.

That a law subjecting the exercise of First Amendment freedoms to the prior restraint of a license, without narrow, objective and definite standards to guide the licensing authority, is unconstitutional...And our decisions have made clear that a person faced with such...a law may ignore it, and engage with impunity in the exercise of the right of free expression for which the law purports to require a license". Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (1969).

As long as there are humans, art and speech will be inextricably intertwined as both the means of communication, and as its result. To prevent an artist from showing their work, is to silence their most precious and fundamental medium of communicating.