There was a time when banning a book meant silencing a voice. Flush with the power of our digital age, we may forget that information so readily available to us – both truth and lies – was once so easily stopped. That is, until we read about governmental attempts to control knowledge through digital means and realize it’s all still very prevalent.
I distinctly remember being very frightened as a child by the idea of books being banned – or worse, burned. The clandestine copy of Forever passed around my grammar school, eagerly highlighted, was the best instructor of sex education we had (we have it so easy now, seriously) and when it was confiscated by a puritanical teacher the sense of shame and then rebellion that resulted was a defining moment. Later on, books like Brave New World and A Clockwork Orange spoke deeply to my developing beliefs about personal freedom and responsibility. There’s a natural outrage in me against those who would try to censor artists from holding the mirror up to our not-so civil society.
Artist Dana Ellyn continues her examination of controversial subjects with Banned, a solo exhibit showing now through July 31 at MLK Library. Last December she applied her laser eye for hypocrisy to a wide range of untouchable subjects such as religion, politics, and feminine identity in Divinely Irreverent, a show I unabashedly loved as “an audacious exhibit delivering hard slaps to myths of many kinds.” Here, the examination comes from books banned or otherwise considered subversive – perfect for Dana’s love of metaphor – and the slaps are delivered to those who would ban information and keep us in the dark.
The exhibit opened to coincide with the American Library Association’s annual conference, and it’s worth taking a look at their list of the frequently challenged books – you may be surprised by what you see. Banned features seventeen paintings inspired by controversial books; here are three that I found resonated particularly with me.
Along with Judy Blume’s Forever, the other book eagerly devoured by girls of my generation was her classic Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret. Though the book’s major theme is the main character’s quest for determining what her religion will be or should be, that’s not what I remember most. It’s the chant Dana portrays in her painting I Must, I Must, I Must Increase My Bust. Girls would scream it down school hallways after reading the book, like rabid cheerleaders. The quest for knowledge about what femininity means as your body is changing without your control or consent, perhaps even betraying some, is a rite of passage that still resonates when I look at this painting. Its painfully cheerful pinkness, the stretched smile, the sad little training bra contrasting with her determined fists. Oh, the humiliation!
Dana combines two banned works, a book and a film, in the piece Last Tango in Paris. I wasn’t familiar with the children’s book And Tango Makes Three but Dana explained it was based on the true story of two Central Park Zoo penguins who formed a couple and raised a chick from an egg together. ALA notes it as the most challenged book of 2006-2008 and the most banned of 2009. Written by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, illustrated by Henry Cole, the authors’ stated purpose is to help parents explain same-sex parent families by using a natural event. One of the most striking aspects of information control is the attempt to stifle facts under the guise of protection, from citizenry to children. To combine this book with the most sexually controversial film of its day is wickedly audacious of Dana, which is why I love her work. The whole painting has a rather uncomfortable soft-core 1970’s porn feel. Does the penguin want to go with this scantily clad vixen? He seems rather confused and hesitant to me, that foot raised in the opposite direction. She may be wearing penguin flippers but I don’t think she’s his cup of tea. And that field of buttercups she’s leading him into… naughty.
I always preferred Aldous Huxley’s vision of the future in Brave New World to George Orwell’s 1984. Something about Soma seemed more seductive than the Two Minutes Hate. Then again maybe it was the Malthusian Belt versus the Junior Anti-Sex League. In any case, When You Read This Book, You Read With Mao is Dana’s homage not just to Orwell’s novel itself but a World War II propaganda poster. In the poster, driving alone is equated to driving with Hitler (a recent German AIDS information campaign made the same equation, except with sex, showing that metaphor still has the power to shock). In 1984, the protagonist Winston works in the Ministry of Truth, censoring historical documents to serve the totalitarian desire to control all aspects of life. A painting using the imagery of a propaganda poster to highlight a novel about censorship – now there’s a well-delivered slap. It’s a vivid illustration of Dana’s ability to combine metaphor and meaning. What truly grips me is the sharp color scheme, mimicking the classic book cover, and the iconic stance of the wide-eyed Red Guard. Is he really extorting us to read the book, or ready to throw it on the book-burning pyre?
Free exchange of ideas and knowledge is the gift of being human – it was that desire to trade information that made us evolve and develop our culture. We should be on guard against attempts to silence those voices. Dana’s exhibit is on view in the main room of MLK Library – free for all. It’s a striking meditation on the uncomfortable truths many would prefer stay hidden, or worse, black-lined out of existence, each painting raising many questions. Take a look, and let us know what you think.