A Message from the Past: Is the First Amendment Stronger Since the Trials of the Hollywood Ten?

For 17 years, Blacklist by Jenny Holzer has entertained many passers-by and preserved the memory of those who were questioned in the controversial hearings by the House Committee on the un-American Activities. The quotes from Herbert Biberman and others bring the fear of the Hollywood ten alive:

“I do not consider this committee to be stupid, on the contrary I consider it to be evil. It is not communism the House Committee on the un-American Activities fears, but the human mind, reason itself. It is not force and violence this committee is investigating, but earnest, unceasing citizenship this committee is in the course of overthrowing not Karl Marx, but the constitutional way of American life.”

The tension between the concept of freedom of speech and its application in American society was inflamed during this period and the beginning words of the first amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” is both an ironic and provocative carving on the dark slate of Blacklist.

As we approach the 70-year anniversary of the famous hearings, a new chapter of American history is opening, and many have their eyes on how the art world will react to the changes coming with a Trump presidency. If the recent awards shows are any indication, artists plan to exercise the full promises of the first amendment. Comedian Jimmy Kimmel opened the Academy Awards with, “maybe this is not a popular thing to say, but I want to say thank you to Donald Trump, I mean, remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racist?”

The presence of ACLU support ribbons on the red carpet suggests that the art world may seek to test the Trump presidency on multiple fronts. Trump has been vocal about his disdain for the individuals in Hollywood specifically. When many refused to attend his inauguration, he tweeted “the so-called ‘A’ list celebrities are all wanting tixs to the inauguration, but look what they did for Hillary, NOTHING. I want the PEOPLE!” but maybe his intense distain for a Chris Ofili piece is better insight into how Trump feels about works of art. The biggest question? Are concerns surrounding Donald Trump’s desire to withhold the protection of the first amendment legitimate?

In regards to the first amendment, his tweet “nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” in November, 2016 many consider precedent for worry. However, months later he then tweeted out “Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy. Even if I don’t always agree, I recognize the rights of people to express their views” in the wake of the Women’s March on Washington.

While the world holds its breath, the fighting spirit of Lucille Ball shouts from the walkway of Blacklist and offers guidance for everyone:

“All of agree that the constitution of the United States must be defended! But the way to do this is not by shutting up the man you disagree with; you must fight for his right to speak and be heard. All civil liberties go hand in hand and when one goes the others are weakened.”

Blog post by Jordan Winters, intern at USC Fisher Museum of Art.