Following the terrorist attack that killed 12 people at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, It would seem that much of the mainstream media has self-censored cartoons from the controversial publication. Now AP has been accused of hypocrisy for choosing not to distribute Charlie Hebdo’s politically and racially sensitive material, while continuing to sell an image of artist Andres Serrano’s photographic work ‘Piss Christ’, which shocked the world in 1989, as what appeared to be a traditionally beautiful image turned out to be a crucifix submerged in a container of the artist’s urine. In response to the accusation, the AP quickly removed the Serrano artwork from its website.
“It’s been our policy for years that we refrain from moving deliberately provocative images,” AP spokesperson Erin Madigan, insisted to Politco in response to the criticism about its decision not to share Charlie Hebdo’s charged works. “It is fair to say we have revised and reviewed our policies since 1989,” when the Piss Christ photo was first published.
Serrano’s image caused international controversy and political debate; in 1987, Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’ was exhibited at the Stux Gallery in New York and was favourably received. The work of art later caused a scandal when it was exhibited in 1989, with detractors, famously including United States Senators Al D’Amato and Jesse Helms, who were outraged that Serrano received $15,000 for the work, and $5,000 in 1986, from the taxpayer-funded National Endowment for the Arts. Serrano received death threats and hate mail at the time. Others alleged that the government funding of ‘Piss Christ’ violated separation of church and state. The work was later vandalised at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, and gallery officials reported receiving death threats in response to the Serrano’s image.
The AP not the only major news outlet to decide against publishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons: the New York Daily News pixelated the magazine’s cover, as did the Telegraph, which later removed the politically controversial image altogether. A staff memo at CNN from senior editorial director Richard Griffiths suggested writers should “verbally describe the cartoons in detail,” rather than reproduce the artwork, citing the importance of balancing “the tension between free expression and respect for religion.”
The reaction to the censorship of Charlie Hebdo cartoons has been highly critical, with Gawker characterising the AP’s actions as “a cowardly and unfortunate capitulation to the men who killed 12 people today in an apparent effort to quell speech.”