Censored art: Philip Guston's Riding Around (1969)

December 14, 2022   6 mins

“Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better, but the frog dies in the process.” Truer words than these famous ones of E.B. White’s have rarely been spoken, and so requiring an explanation for jokes has long been, if not a strict taboo, then at least frowned upon for the way it ruins the fun. To not get it used to be a sign of an individual’s shortcomings, an admission of either dull-wittedness or hopeless disconnection from the zeitgeist where humour is born.

But lately, the common wisdom about letting comedy or artworks or even facts speak for themselves has been subverted by a deepening fear of what might happen if something gets lost in translation. A guy who doesn’t get the joke might instead get the wrong idea — and what then? Some sort of catastrophe, for sure, if not outright anarchy.

These anxieties were on particularly potent display amid the recent to-do surrounding the Twitter Files, which are either a groundbreaking act of corporate transparency by the tech world’s biggest disruptor — or a giant, embarrassing nothingburger, depending on who you ask. For those not in the know, the Files offer a glimpse behind the scenes at Twitter during various recent controversies, when content moderation arguably crossed the line into censorship. There have been four Files thus far, released in the form of massive tweet threads by journalists hand-picked by Elon Musk. All have offered insights into the challenges of managing speech on the microblogging site, which holds a place of outsized cultural influence owing to its status as a favourite hangout for media folks, but the adverse relationship between Twitter management and humorous content was on fullest display in Matt Taibbi’s recent thread about the site’s collaboration with government agencies to combat misinformation in the leadup to the 2020 election, which culminated in the permanent banning of Donald Trump from the site.

Among the tweets that Twitter employees had highlighted as cause for concern was a joke from October 2020. Former Arkansas governor and one-time presidential hopeful, the Republican Mike Huckabee, took a jab at the mail-in voting system: “Stood in rain for hour to early vote today,” Huckabee wrote. “When I got home I filled in my stack of mail-in ballots and then voted the ballots of my deceased parents and grandparents. They vote just like me!  #Trump2020”

As dumb as this joke was, there’s a certain dark absurdity to the response it inspired behind the scenes at Twitter: “This appears to be a joke, but other people might believe it,” one anonymous employee wrote when the tweet was flagged. Trust and Safety head executive Yoel Roth wrote: “I agree it’s a joke, but he’s also literally admitting in a tweet to a crime.”

He’s literally admitting in a tweet to a crime. If this were a work of fiction, here is the line that would elicit an editorial eyeroll and a polite note about the need to maintain subtlety in satire. But then, in a way, it is fiction. When Roth says, “he’s literally admitting to a crime,” he knows full well that the “crime” in question never happened; he’s telling a joke of his own, concocting a winking pretext for ideological censorship under the guise of policing misinformation.

As Kathleen Stock noted in a recent essay, there are two explanations for this affected literality, this iron-fisted narrative control: either the censor himself is stupid, or he thinks everyone else is. This makes for its own set of problems in the worlds of media and academia, but it has especially worrisome implications for comedy, and for art, where the message of the work, what it makes you think, is a distant second to what it makes you feel. The cult of the fact-check, this notion that we cannot sacrifice accuracy even for the sake of having a laugh, is the antithesis of fun — even when intentions are good.

Last June, Twitter implemented “birdwatch”, “a community-based approach to misinformation”. The feature allowed users to add relevant context to misleading tweets, but people immediately set about not only correcting the record on factually incorrect news items, but also dissecting a whole lot of metaphorical joke-frogs to death. One representative example, a clever jibe about NASA’s history of offering amnesty to Nazis, was instantly ruined by the attachment of an explanation that not only reduced the substance of the joke to a third-grade reading level but reads as though it had been written by an actual third grader (“This is a joke based on the fact that the early days of NASA was ran by Nazis that were granted amnesty in exchange for working for the U.S. government in research and development”). Looking at this note — which a majority of users rated as useful for being “easy to understand” — one wonders whether it is worse to fact-check a joke or to just suppress it outright.  In the latter case, at least the frog survives.

Beneath the contemporary anxiety over misinformation, it seems something older and more insidious lurks: the eternal, authoritarian urge to stamp out irreverence and imagination lest they give people ideas. The threats to the narrative can come from anywhere: in 2017, for instance, the makers of the video game Minecraft eliminated a whimsical feature that allowed users to feed (digital) chocolate chip cookies to the game’s (digital) parrot population, after an uproar over the possibility that real parrots might be harmed. In 2020, the Auschwitz memorial condemned the Amazon series Hunters, a show about modern-day Nazi hunters, for a depiction of fictional (albeit directionally accurate) wartime atrocities that, per the memorial, was “not only dangerous foolishness” in its injection of imagination into a Holocaust story, but “also welcomes future deniers”. Of course, reasonable people can disagree on whether the show’s human chess match was in good taste, but the notion that aspiring Holocaust deniers are likely to be found watching an Amazon series about a group of Jewish vigilantes hunting down and murdering Nazis seems misplaced at best. Those folks are watching Disney, obviously. (That was a joke.)

This desire to intellectually handhold consumers to the proper conclusions about what they’re watching, reading, or looking at has also found expression lately in the “recontextualisation” of art exhibits. Where paintings were once displayed alongside notes about the artist’s use of light, or the life events that might have influenced the work, some museums now instruct viewers to interpret the art through the timeliest political lens. Last year, a Tate exhibit of paintings by the artist William Hogarth raised hackles for imbuing a wooden chair with sinister subtext: “The chair is made from timbers shipped from the colonies, via routes which also shipped enslaved people”, read the label displayed alongside one of Hogarth’s self-portraits. “Could the chair also stand in for all those unnamed black and brown people enabling the society that supports his vigorous creativity?”

According to this new paradigm, the beauty of the art is a secondary concern — if it’s present at all. Meanwhile, some works have been deemed so offensive that no amount of contextualisation can make them safe for viewing by the general population, as with the cancellation in 2020 of a long-anticipated Philip Guston exhibit. Guston’s depictions of hooded, cartoonish klansmen were always meant as a critical statement on the banality of evil, but how could curators be assured that the public, those fools, would understand this?

The creative world is increasingly haunted by the spectre of this hypothetical moron, who cannot sort fact from fiction, or art from news, or humorous gags about overconsumption from the mistaken conviction that beer is a fruit. Nobody ever demands contextualisation on their own behalf, of course: they’re not stupid! But other people are — not just stupid, but vapid, a collectively empty chassis awaiting an ideological engine. It’s like the anonymous Twitter employee said: sure, it’s obviously a joke, but other people might believe it.

The irony is that we know more than ever how true this isn’t. The age of social media offers us a far more expansive view of what people think, and why, and how they reach those conclusions, than we have ever had before. Yet as with the Twitter Files, this greater transparency only seems to fuel ever greater mistrust — and a sense that the stakes are far too high to simply leave people to their own devices. And while the impact so far has been largely administrative — a silly museum label here, a fact check there — how likely is it to end there?

This quest to explain art, and in doing so to instruct people how to feel about it, inevitably trickles down until the work itself is being policed at the creation stage. A curator can only do so much to steer patrons to the proper conclusions; the artist, too, must always keep the moron in mind, dumbing down every line, and every punchline, to the lowest common denominator so that it’s comprehensible to everyone (and, coincidentally, truly funny to no one).  Faced with the terrifying prospect that people might get the wrong idea, the best — actually, the only — solution is to get rid of ideas altogether, dissecting them for offence, contextualising the life out of them, until there’s nothing fun — or funny — about any of it.

Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.