is the art world facing a rising tide of censorship?

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Censorship is on the rise globally, say artists and art professionals: two groups that carry the unofficial but historic burden of speaking truth to power and offering political critique on behalf of wider society. This is what Dashka Slater described in the Artists at Risk Connection 2023 report Art is Power as artists “being canaries in the coal mine… [having] a special role to play in sounding the alarm and pushing back against the forces that want to make us be quiet”.

Artists speaking to The Art Newspaper have raised concerns about upholding free speech and artistic freedom in a year when democracy will be tested with elections in more than 70 countries, including the US, UK and India—shadowed by the threat of misinformation supercharged by AI-generated text and visuals—and where geopolitical struggles are playing out in the Israel-Hamas conflict, Russia’s two-year-long invasion of Ukraine and nuclear-power rivalry between the US, North Korea and China.

This censorship is both overt and covert, whether in autocracies such as Russia—where the opposition leader Alexei Navalny died last month after years of captivity in Siberia, or bona fide democracies like the UK where grant-making bodies have found themselves embroiled in rows about restricting funding for “political” or “reputationally damaging” work.

Online, the damage done historically to the democratic process by the sensation-favouring algorithms of social media, which surfaced in 2016 during the UK’s Brexit vote and the US elections—and which was encapsulated in the landmark 2020 documentary The Social Dilemma—have generated a series of privacy laws in the EU, UK and US in 2023-24. Some of these seek to establish ethical reporting and transparency from companies, but others threaten to end online privacy and target content that lawmakers simply do not like in the name of children’s online safety. Meanwhile Meta has recently announced that “political” content, including “social issues”, will be restricted on their platforms, following on from years of “shadow banning” of artists by social media companies—where a user’s visibility on platforms such as Meta’s Instagram has been reduced by stealth.

“Citizens of more than 70 countries will head to the polls this year. These elections come as authoritarianism is on the rise globally, threatening to eradicate basic liberties and suppress free expression,” Julie Trébault, the director of the Artists at Risk Connection programme at the human rights group Pen America, tells The Art Newspaper. “Global censorship has increased as political candidates bolster nationalist campaigns to suppress and stifle free expression, especially when critical of the state.

As antisemitism and anti-Muslim bigotry rise, artists are facing intensified scrutiny for expressing their opinions

Julie Trébault, Artists at Risk Connection programme

“The Western art world has been jolted by the Israel-Hamas war,” Trébault adds. “As antisemitism and anti-Muslim bigotry rise, artists are facing intensified scrutiny for expressing their opinions, including on social media, leading to a wave of cancellations.”

Different ways to censor

Coco Fusco, the Cuban American artist and activist, tells The Art Newspaper that there are bigger issues at play than the fallout of Western cancel culture and other political pressures. “It is crucial to note that censorship is not a monolith. It is practised in different ways, depending on context and laws. Journalists in Gaza are being killed as part of their being censored. People in Russia, Iran, Cuba, China, Nicaragua, El Salvador and elsewhere can be arrested, tortured and imprisoned for long periods after they are ‘censored’,” she says.

“That would not happen to me in the US. I might not get published, or I might have a show cancelled, or I might even be threatened by powerful art collectors and pressured to remove my signature from a letter calling for a ceasefire. But no one is going to pull my fingernails out or send me to jail.”

Fusco continues to highlight the plight of the jailed Cuban artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, who is detained in Guanajay, a maximum-security prison south west of Havana. He was imprisoned on charges of contempt and insult to national symbols following the widespread protests that swept Cuba in 2021; according to Amnesty International, hundreds of human rights activists and artists have been detained and criminalised for participating in the uprising.

Ripple effects

The real-world consequences of today’s cancel culture, and the ripple effects of such events, are all too clear for artists such as Ai Weiwei, whose exhibition at Lisson Gallery, in London, last year was pulled following his controversial statement on social media relating to the Israel-Hamas war. “The sense of guilt around the persecution of the Jewish people has been, at times, transferred to offset the Arab world,” Ai posted at the time.

The artist tells The Art Newspaper: “The experience of growing up in an authoritarian society [China] tells me about the importance of being an individual, and the necessity of defending our essential rights.”

I think it’s worse in the West [than in China] because people are living in a fantasy land… They don’t want to see it, they justify censorship

Tania Bruguera, artist

The Cuban artist and activist Tania Bruguera reflected on the fraught geopolitical situation on The Art Newspaper’s podcast The Week in Art, saying: “I think it’s worse in the West [than in China] because people are living in a fantasy land… They don’t want to see it, they justify censorship. They use the same mechanism, blaming the person instead of looking at the system that generated the censorship.” Bruguera’s non-stop reading of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism at Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin was shut down on 10 February after a group of visitors reportedly chanted, “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, a controversial slogan that is criminalised in the German capital.

In the UK, the public funding body Arts Council England (ACE) was accused of limiting freedom of speech and other civil liberties last month, following an update to its Relationship Frameworks policies. New guidelines released in January warned organisations receiving ACE support that “overtly political or activist” statements might create “reputational risk” and endanger funding arrangements.

ACE has since said it will publish an updated version of the new guidelines following a backlash. “The statement by ACE on reputational risks associated with political commentary sent out the wrong signal, even if [it] had other intentions with their guidelines,” says Aaron Cezar, the director of the Delfina Foundation in London, a non-profit organisation catering to emerging artists.

Educational gag orders

In the US, activist groups such as Pen America continue to track what it calls “educational gag orders” (defined as the spread of prohibitions to restrict teaching about topics such as race, gender, American history and LGBTQ+ identities in schools and higher education). Its research has revealed that of the 3,362 instances of books banned in the 2022–23 school year, certain themes, formats and identities recur. This statistic regarding banned books stands out: 30% include characters of colour or discuss race and racism, and 30% include LGBTQ+ characters or themes.

The ability of artists to act as “canaries in the coal mine” is threatened by exile as much as imprisonment and censorship. The Cuban conceptual artist Reynier Leyva Novo has been subject to art censorship in recent years (in 2019 he covered up his sculpture at the Aichi Triennale in an ongoing row over the work Statue of a Girl of Peace, 2011) and left Cuba in 2021 to live in exile in the US.

“For me, sustained censorship led to exile,” Novo tells The Art Newspaper, “resulting in a complete displacement, both physically and symbolically, for me and my family. Censorship and displacement are intrinsically linked—there’s no mistaking it. Censorship is a sort of passport to an unknown place.”

After fear and censorship, and even after having left the country, you still do not feel safe and you still risk censorship in your drawings, in your paintings

Samaneh Atef, artist

In the 2023 report produced by Pen America’s Artists at Risk Connection programme—Art in Power: 20 Artists on How They Fight for Justice and Inspire Change—the Iranian artist Samaneh Atef outlines the long-term effects of being in exile, saying: “One of the reasons that led to my departure was to escape the censorship of my work … But the worst part of this story is that after fear and censorship, and even after having left the country, you still do not feel safe and you still risk censorship in your drawings, in your paintings.”

What can artists do?

How artists and art professionals should respond to escalating threats to freedom and seismic geopolitical tumult is a point of debate. Some offer practical, institutional, solutions. For Novo, “The art world must amplify existing discussions on censorship and open new avenues for debate.

“A forward-thinking strategy would involve creating a dynamic global platform dedicated to monitoring, showcasing, denouncing, informing and actively debating censorship issues. It would operate as a transnational and multidisciplinary platform, engaging a broad spectrum of voices from the art community,” he says.

Other artists are calling for a shakedown of museums. The US photographer Andres Serrano—whose Piss Christ (1987) image of a crucifix plunged into a vat of urine has inflamed right-wing critics since the 1980s—says that “museums and curators should reassess their roles and decide what they are. Are they to be bastions of creativity or promoters of what can pass with boards, committees and staff members?”

Self-censorship on the rise

Perhaps the most insidious effect is the rise of self-censorship, which is a challenge to any concerted response. Fusco says she has “colleagues who are cautious about expressing their views. They’re not comfortable sacrificing professional advantages over a political issue.” Meanwhile, the American artist Dread Scott says: “Many during the [1950s] McCarthy era didn’t agree with the blacklists, censorship and the conservative drift in society, but sat quietly by as things got worse. People need to have more courage and integrity this time.”

This fear is exacerbated by the prevailing winds that could see Donald Trump re-elected as US President later this year. Cecilia Noce—an independent researcher on freedom of expression—pinpoints a key trend in the censorship debate, namely the erosion of democracy as a political regime but also as a “value that guides societies”.

“Not only are we witnessing a setback for democratic regimes, but democracy is also being eroded in democratic countries,” she says. “Democracy and freedom of expression, and of artistic expression, are intertwined. Artists may be the first ones to face censorship, but [they] won’t be the last.”

  • Gareth Harris is Chief contributing editor of The Art Newspaper and author of Censored Art Today (2022, Lund Humphries/Sotheby’s Institute of Art).

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