Censorship and the arts: There's a web of challenges to free expression

Many acknowledge that fear of causing offence feeds self-censorship; others stress that over-protectiveness denies the audience the opportunity to decide for itself


A great deal of excellent art is created every year and this country rightly has a global reputation for the vibrancy of its cultural life. 

And yet through our work with arts organisations and artists over the past two years we have learnt that censorship and particularly self-censorship are significant factors threatening the cultural space. The key question is why, in a country that values its freedoms, self-censorship is pervasive and in the eyes of many an increasing problem, suppressing ideas and creativity for fear of the consequences.

One explanation is that self-censorship has become institutionalised and is therefore largely invisible and unchallenged – it has settled in over time, for a range of reasons and with a number of causes, throwing a cloak over some uncomfortable truths. At the same time support for artistic freedom of expression has been assumed rather than ensured.

Freedom of expression in the arts needs certain conditions to thrive: the willingness to embrace controversy and diversity of opinion, to maintain open debate and dialogue, to take risks and experiment.  The economic, social or political climate doesn’t necessarily favour these conditions and they have to be actively maintained at the heart of artistic mission and practice. Artistic freedom of expression is a tricky right because it supports artists to investigate the most sensitive areas of the society and ask difficult questions. Perhaps we are losing our appetite for disagreement and debate in the arts.  Many acknowledge that fear of causing offence feeds self-censorship; others stress that over-protectiveness brings its own problems and denies the audience the opportunity to decide for itself. 

At the heart of this is a polarised view of the responsibilities of the artist. On the one hand, many think that it is the artist’s responsibility to challenge all and any boundaries in society; that is what art is for - to give us radically different ways of looking at and thinking about our world.  From this point of view the museum, theatre or gallery is an open and accessible arena for debate about critical and difficult ideas, welcoming and ready to engage with a wide range of responses to artwork on display including hostility.  On the other hand, there is a view that the responsible artist is the one who will respect society’s, or a particular community’s, taboos and prevailing mores and adapt what they say accordingly.  This can put the arts organisation, which has duties to both the artists and audience, in a difficult position, and many of those in our discussions acknowledged that the arts needed to reclaim controversy as a part of the creative process, rather than withdraw from the dilemmas it generates. 

It is when hostility threatens to or turns violent that the situation becomes more complicated and other triggers for self-censorship start to kick in.  Arts organisations may not want to programme work that has the slightest chance of triggering hostility, let along violence. And if violence is threatened, the police may step in and make decisions that conflict with free expression.

And what if an arts organisation is willing to stand by a particular piece of work that pushes boundaries and risks or invites strong reaction?  Could it be breaking the law?  It is worth noting that no arts based tertiary education includes any teaching on the legal framework around free expression in the arts - strange when compared to the amount of training and information there is for journalists and those in media. Consequently the fear of prosecution represents another source of self-censorship in the arts. And financial constraints mean that going to a lawyer may be too costly, especially for smaller organisations which is an added reason not to take on challenging work. 

So what about competing rights – the right to religion or to privacy?  Again there is no training or guidance in this area for the arts and balancing rights is a delicate and complex affair. If the work is on display and there is trouble, then most times the police will be called in and yet as we discovered, there is no guidance for the police on the specifics of policing cultural events – again, strange when compared to the amount of guidance and training there is on policing of political protest.

By digging a little below the surface, a web of challenges to free expression in the arts emerges and these are fed by a climate of risk aversion that many acknowledge whether in arts institutions, across many local councils, or in the police force.  The move by the government towards greater private sponsorship of the arts threatens to add another level of constraint on risk-taking and controversial work, as most sponsors tend to invest in commercially successful, tried and tested events. 

Hopefully there will always be artists ready and able to push boundaries, surprise, shock and challenge us.  To that extent there will always be artistic freedom.  But artists do not operate in a vacuum and those who decide what goes into our public spaces, theatres, galleries, museums and cinemas need to have the courage to support them when the work goes into difficult territory. Compared to investigative journalism or political protest – where, as in the arts, unpopular and controversial ideas are expressed - artists and the infrastructure that supports them are trailing on available bespoke information about rights and the laws. Those who care about artistic freedom of expression have to defend it robustly or risk losing it; more open debate and bespoke information about artist rights are essential.

Julia Farrington is head of arts at Index on Censorship

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