Censorship is a concept that is as old as people have been able to draw or write on walls, and artists are particularly vulnerable to it. There have been many high profile cases of obvious censorship, where a group of people or the state takes position and decides that a particular work of art must be banned for some reason, usually because it offends whatever moral values happen to be dominant at the time. This can be an issue for any type of content creator, whether it's a book writer trying to write provocative thoughts on paper in Hitler's Germany, or a painter attempting to portray nudity during the Middle Ages.
Types of censorship
But censorship is not always so obvious. Often it can be insidious and kept under the table. It can be done through very subtle means, and hard to detect until it's too late. Many people would be shocked to realize how much censoring still goes on to this day. Whether it's Madonna who saw several of her videos censored in the UK, Mike Diana being convicted for drawing obscene images in the US, or cartoonists threatened in Denmark by religious zealots.
Censorship is typically based on social values. Back during the Middle Ages, religion had a heavy presence on western Europe, and as such artists had many constraints. But it was not seen as censorship, it was simply morality and common sense. To do otherwise would be seen as being depraved or evil. Now, religion is still present in many parts of the world, but less so in the west. Few artists in the US or UK, for example, would decide to self-censor in the fear of religious reprisal, but that isn't the case in countries like Pakistan or Iran.
In North America, nudity is seen in a very different way than in Europe. Often nudity is equaled to pornography and given a negative connotation. Even if religion isn't directly behind it, an artists that decides to create nude art will often face being called perverted. Violence on the other hand is common. This in turn leads to many works of art featuring violent scenes and enjoying a completely open viewership. Meanwhile, Europe is often the exact opposite, with many more people being sensitive to violence than in the US, but nudity being a much less taboo subject.
Dealing with censorship when it happens
Regardless of the exact type of censorship or where it happens, how can you, as an artist, deal with it? There are many ways to approach censorship. Some make it their mission to defeat bans and do everything they can to provoke. Art by itself often provokes people, but when an artist purposely goes after the common social order or morals, then they can quickly take center stage. The resulting celebrity can be a great reward, but can also be very dangerous.
Another way to face censorship is through the courts. The first amendment in the US provides a lot of protections to content creators, and many times artists have relied on the constitution to protect their rights. But this mostly works for state censorship. There are many cases where the first amendment is of little use. For example, if a publisher decides to deny you and you suspect it's because you touched a sensitive subject. In many cases, censorship cannot be proven, only guessed.
To combat this type of censorship, the best way is to bypass the censor. Instead of relying on publishers or galleries, go for a self-publishing model, or make your own site where you can expose your art. If you reach your own public, instead of relying on someone else to be the intermediary, then you avoid any potential for censorship. The public can then decide for itself whether they like what they see.
Unfortunately, there is also a lot of self-censorship going on as well. Many artists, consciously or not, will actively decide against making content that may rock the boat. This is not necessarily so much cowardice as it is self-preservation. Artists are persecuted routinely for their work, and it's only normal that many would want to avoid such a fate.
In the end, there is no best solution on how to deal with censorship. It is up to each content creator and each artist to decide whether they are willing to go against the current, and if they are censored, whether they want to rise up to the injustice and become a martyr, use legal means, or attempt to bypass the censor and go directly to the source. In each case there are potential repercussions, and it is up to each of us to decide how we deal with them.