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The kind of censorship among artists that has been exposed at the Læsø Art Hall, on the Danish island of Læsø, unfortunately only contributes to the ever-shrinking space of free expression. Some artists, evidently, only approve of certain kinds of free expression. Pictured: Læsø, Denmark. (Image source: Nikolaj F. Rasmussen/Flickr)

Index on Censorship, a London-based organization that campaigns for free expression worldwide, recently launched a new support service for artists, Arts Censorship Support Service.

The service is apparently intended to “push back against censorship and keep the space for artistic freedom of expression as wide open as possible”, according to an interview by ArtsProfessional with Associate Arts Producer Julia Farrington of the Index on Censorship.

The Index on Censorship has identified what in general appears to be an overly cautious approach to commissioning new artwork. “Artists will create the work that gatekeepers and commissioners will adopt, and so [the new service] is a lot to do with making the decision makers, the commissioners, confident in taking on and challenging their own self-censorship and organisational censorship,” Farrington said. According to her, the pressure that can be exerted on arts organizations when producing controversial or challenging work has been greater than ever, in part due to a climate of online hostility.

“The internet has clearly changed the landscape,” she said. “Artists are definitely in the firing line when it comes to online harassment and abuse”.

The support initiative comes six years after the Index on Censorship’s major conference, “Taking the Offensive – defending artistic freedom of expression in the UK.” At that time, in 2013, it was the first “cross-art-form, sector- wide, national conference on artistic freedom” in the UK. While the conference was held “to debate the growth of self-censorship in contemporary culture, the social, political and legal challenges to artistic freedom of expression and the sources of these new challenges and pressures including security issues, risk aversion and a growing sensitivity to ‘offence'”, the climate for artistic freedom seems not to have improved much, if at all, since then. If it had, such a support service would now be superfluous.

The Index on Censorship’s new support service offers anyone in the UK cultural sector, employed or self-employed, who is facing an issue of censorship, assistance with a wide range of issues, including:

  • “Checking at the earliest stage of production of a new work whether there is the potential of a legal challenge
  • “Advising on a communications strategy in support of provocative work
  • “Advising how to manage hostile media attention directed at an artist, member of an organisation, or the organisation as a whole
  • “Providing moral support and guidance on how to deal with the emotional stress associated with controversy.”

The UK has, in recent years, grappled with a string of cases highlighting the roadblocks for free expression in various forms of art. In 2015, for instance, police recommended to cancel part of an art exhibition at a London gallery — not because of protests but because it might be “potentially inflammatory“. The art installation, ISIS Threaten Sylvania, by an artist known as Mimsy, was removed from an exhibition called Passion for Freedom at the Mall Gallery in London. The work, a political satire, featured children’s toys, known as Sylvanian Families. “Far away, in the land of Sylvania, rabbits, foxes, hedgehogs, mice and all woodland animals have overcome their differences to live in harmonious peace and tranquility,” the exhibition catalogue states. “MICE-IS, a fundamentalist Islamic terror group, are threatening to dominate Sylvania, and annihilate every species that does not submit to their hardline version of sharia law.”

ISIS Threaten Sylvania “was removed from the Passion for Freedom exhibition at the Mall galleries after police raised concerns about the ‘potentially inflammatory content’ of the work, informing the organisers that, if they went ahead with their plans to display it, they would have to pay £36,000 for security for the six-day show.” At the time, the curators of the exhibition said:

“The highlighted work was humorously mocking the despised terrorist organisation that causes suffering to many, not only in the Middle East, but also here, in Europe and America.”

Mimsy, the artist, said:

“I love my freedom. I’m aware of the very real threat to that freedom from Islamic fascism and I’m not going to pander to them or justify it like many people on the left are doing.”

The good news is that ISIS Threaten Sylvania is was recently on show, with the work of other artists, in an exhibition called The Political Art at the Læsø Art Hall on the Danish island of Læsø. This time, however, Mimsy was not the issue. Rather, the new stumbling block was the refusal of some artists even to exhibit their work in the company of colleagues with whom they politically disagree — a circumstance no amount of support services presumably can fix.

The Danish exhibition featured works by celebrated artists such as the Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei, British Banksy, Gongsan Kim, who is originally from North Korea, Agnieszka Kolek, and a number of Scandinavian and other international members of the art world. According to the art gallery’s curator, Jon Eirik Lundberg:

“Political art represents both the struggle and the vaccine against the culture of silence found in any society. The political artist breaks down taboos so that the roads are opened for the exchange of thoughts and ideas between individuals and between citizens and rulers. Therefore, political art is necessary. And so this exhibition is necessary.”

At the last minute, however, according to Lundberg, people connected to Ai Weiwei, specifically a Danish collector, Jens Faurschou, who owns the artwork in question, asked that the work not be included in the exhibition because it also featured the artists Lars Vilks, Dan Park, and Uwe Max Jensen.

Lars Vilks is a Swedish artist, primarily known for his 2007 cartoon of Muhammad as a dog. Vilks has since been the target of several terrorist plots, including a terrorist attack on a conference to support free speech in Copenhagen in February 2015.

Dan Park, a Swedish street artist, has been imprisoned in Sweden for producing some of his work. In 2014, he was convicted of defamation and inciting hatred against an ethnic group, and sentenced to six months for satirical works that the court claimed depicted Roma and black people in a racist way. In another incident, in January 2009, Park placed a jar with the text “Zyklon B” and a swastika outside the Jewish congregation’s premises in Malmö. “No, everyone can’t laugh at everything, but I like to joke about what is forbidden, like the Holocaust and the Mohammed caricatures,” Park said at the time.

Uwe Max Jensen, a Danish performance artist, ran as a political candidate for the anti-Islamic party Stram Kurs in Denmark’s recent elections.

The decision to withdraw Ai Weiwei’s piece was taken by Faurschou, the Danish collector, after he was approached by a journalist from a Danish newspaper, Weekendavisen. The journalist, Faurschou explained, told him that the exhibition also included works whose, “values are far removed from Ai Weiwei and my own values”.

After consulting with Ai Weiwei, Faurschou withdrew the work. “Several of the artists’ so-called ‘political art’ wants to provoke merely for the sake of provocation and takes freedom of speech hostage in my opinion”, Faurschou said. “That is why I have decided to withdraw the piece from the exhibition. It is my decision, as I own the artwork”. He pointed out that he was in touch with Ai Weiwei’s studio and that the decision was unanimous.

“Ai Weiwei should be the first to know that this kind of thinking is totalitarian. One cannot simply say that people are a particular way because they say or publish particular things. That amounts to censorship,” said Lundberg, who emphasized that he himself had not spoken to Ai Weiwei.

“It is absurd”, said Uwe Max Jensen. “If you begin to pick art according to who you agree with politically then you are off the mark”. He added: “I am actually a bit outraged. His [Ai Weiwei’s] art is condemned by the Chinese regime; he knows all about being kept on the outside.”

In addition, a handful of Danish artists, who were supposed to have exhibited their works in an unrelated exhibition at the Læsø Art Hall, demanded that the works of Dan Park and Uwe Max be removed from the Political Art exhibition or they would withdraw their works from exhibition that was scheduled for late 2019.

Artists are obviously free to boycott whomever they choose, and to refuse to offer their works to exhibitions with participating artists of whom they disapprove. This kind of censorship among artists, however, unfortunately, only contributes to the ever-shrinking space of free expression. Some artists, evidently, only approve of certain kinds of free expression, never appearing to consider that a similar boycott might happen to themselves if they happen to fall afoul of current political orthodoxy.

As the Danish literary author Jens-Martin Eriksen said about the refusal of the Danish artists even to exhibit at the gallery in the later show:

“This practice allows artists to be evaluated first in a closed forum, a kind of political-ethical council before their works are allowed to see the light of day… Obviously, the boycotting artists are within their right to stay away from their own exhibition… But it is new that the artistic scene has become so polarized that one can no longer perform together and then let the political discussion and confrontation take place [together] with the works in the public space.”

Judith Bergman, a columnist, lawyer and political analyst, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.

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