Of Art and Offence

The Index on Censorship, a London-based campaigning organisation that promotes and defends the right to freedom of expression, is in the process of publishing a series of legal guides designed to empower artists.

Three booklets, covering child protection, counter terrorism and public order laws, have already been published. Two more, covering obscene publications and race/religion laws, are to be published this Autumn.

Available through the Index on Censorship website, these promise to equip arts organisations with a working knowledge of the law with regards to the right to freedom of expression. From the website:

Freedom of expression is essential to the arts. But the laws and practices that protect and nurture free expression are often poorly understood both by practitioners and by those enforcing the law.

As part of Index on Censorship’s work on art and offence, Index has published a series of law packs intended to address questions about legal limits related to free expression and the arts.

We intend them as “living” documents, to be enhanced and developed in partnership with arts groups so that artistic freedom is nurtured and nourished.

Julia Farrington, one of those on the editorial board responsible for the guides, in yesterday’s Guardian said she sees evidence of a disturbing trend starting to emerge in the arts.

We have to ask what sort of message [the shutting down of art exhibitions] sends out from the police to arts organisations who are considering putting on work that deals with contested issues in society, that might divide opinion, or cause offence to a particular group.

As things stand, protest can and does close down art events. It is a tough climate for risk taking in the arts, and artistic freedom thrives when arts organisations are willing and able to take risks with new voices, difficult subject matter.”

Her point is well-taken.

Last September, on the advice of the police, the Barbican Centre in London cancelled a performance of Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B, an art installation intended as a critique of so-called “human zoos,” ethnographic displays that throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth-century showed black Africans as objects of scientific curiosity.

Last November, anti-racism demonstrators stormed the Gérard Philipe theatre in Saint-Denis in an attempt to stop a performance of Exhibit B. The following month, an artists’ collective submitted a complaint to a Paris court demanding its suspension, to preserve the “dignity” of the performers.

Just last week, a group called Boycott the Human Zoo made a direct appeal to the Galway International Arts Festival in Ireland to remove Exhibit B from its programme, branding its inclusion “racist and immensely offensive.” The group claims the appeal is “not about censorship” but about “anti-racism,” echoing the cries of censorious philistines everywhere.

With respect to your delicate sensibilities, this is nonsense. Good art is supposed to challenge and provoke, educate and enlighten. Why should the rest of us be deprived of that challenge, simply because the fearful few couldn’t bear to look?

The Index on Censorship legal guides are available for download here.

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