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Are We Entering a New Age of Artistic Censorship in Europe?

Edinburgh International Festival

There is an uncomfortable moment in Ganesh Versus the Third Reich when the actors pause. The play, ostensibly about the Hindu deity travelling to Germany to reclaim the swastika, an ancient Sanskrit symbol, from the Nazis, comes to a halt as they remove their costumes—an elephant head and a SS armband—turn to face the audience, and ask: "Do we have the right to perform this?" None of the actors are Hindu or Jewish. Many have physical and mental disabilities but act the roles of Hitler and Josef Mengele, who tried to exterminate those similarly handicapped. Later, an actor drops out of character again, to accuse the crowd: "You've come to see some freak porn."

The questions raised—who has the right, as an artist or performer, to depict experiences they have no experience of; just who has the right to say what about whom—are apposite to today. They touch on a burgeoning assumption threatening the arts: Only particular people can tell the story of particular experiences. 

The travelling Exhibit B, by the white South African artist Brett Bailey, is a recreation of a human zoo from the 19th century that features 12-14 African performers from the host city and a choir of Namibian singers exhibited as artifacts. It's meant to provoke a conversation about slavery, colonization, and present-day racism, but many protesters accuse it of being racist itself. 

In London in September, the Barbican pulled the entire run of Exhibit B after a petition calling on the arts center “not to display” the work achieved 22,988 signatories and criticized Exhibit B as “simply an exercise in white racial privilege." In November, the premiere at the Théâtre Gerard Philipe was cancelled after activists breached the barricades and smashed the glass doors of the lobby; over two-hundred police were needed to ensure that the show went on the rest of the week. And most recently there have been ugly scenes outside Le Centquatre in northern Paris, where Exhibit B is programmed to run until the middle of December. Riot police are on standby, as audience members defy hundreds of angry protesters holding placards that read, “Annulex Exhibit B.”  

This is no isolated case. In New York, we saw something similar with the response to the Metropolitan Opera’s staging of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer, a work that has been consistently dogged by protests which claim it is anti-Jewish. Indeed, over the past year there have been a number of similar protests against artworks, in Paris, Edinburgh, and much of Europe, which suggests that the culture wars have arrived in Old World. In Spain, this autumn, Christians demanded the removal of the artwork Cajita de fósforos—a matchbox with the quote, “The only Church that illuminates is the one that burns"—from the show Really Useful Knowledge

Such debates aren't new, of course, but there are important differences between the demands for censorship of the past and those of the present. Historically, those calling for censorship were often concerned that an artwork—perhaps of a sexual nature—would have a coarsening effect and a negative moral impact. Today's activists have a different rationale. They argue that they are the only ones who have the right to speak about the experience depicted—and thus, have the right to silence those who have no comparable experience. So those protesting Exhibit B suggest they, as members of the black community, are the only ones who can create an artwork exploring slavery and colonization. “Brett Bailey touche pas a mon historie” ("Don’t touch my history") reads one placard. The Christian protesters in Spain argue that they have a unique insight into their religion and should be able to close down other views. Both reject anyone else’s interpretation of the works as valid. We cannot understand each other's different lives, they imply. 

What’s more, many contemporary campaigners calling for censorship (or, in their Orwellian words, “decommissioning”) are from the so-called liberal left who, it would seem, want art to show a world they wished existed, having given up on trying to change it. Sara Myers, who authored the London petition against Exhibit B, said the show should be withdrawn because, “I want my children to grow up in a world where the barbaric things that happened to their ancestors are a thing of the past.” By erasing the work, somehow present and past wrongs too will be erased. This summer, in Rome, a children’s rights group in Rome protested the exhibition of a work by the Chapman brothers because it was deemed "paedo-pornographic," and the gallery MAXXI pulled the work. It’s an ugly piece, I concede, but the important point about it is that it is not real life—it is a work of the imagination.

Why have these recent demands to censor been so successful? It’s worth reflecting on who is protesting, because this is also different from the earlier, top-down attempts to censor. This time, artists have been involved in protests. It was an artists’ collective that asked a Paris court to halt Exhibit B. At the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, this August, prominent artists, including the national poet Liz Lochhead, called for a boycott of The City, a hip-hop opera, by the Incubator Theatre. The production was unpolitical ("Humphrey Bogart meets Jay-Z in a gritty and darkly comic whodunit hip-hop opera" is how it was described in the program), save for the fact that the company had received a small amount of money from the state of Israel, which offended members of the Scottish cultural community, including the writer Alasdair Gray and playwright David Greig. One critic demanded that the theatre company make a public statement on its website to say it is opposed to the occupation of the Palestinian territories.

It is also becoming clear that parts of the arts establishment lack backbone. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe meekly voiced a few platitudes about the importance of free expression, but only from the sidelines. It was unsupportive when the run of The City was cancelled—they didn't fight for it. Although the protests in London against Exhibit B were fierce, the Barbican caved quickly, citing safety concerns. At the beginning of November, organizers of the Paris Le Mois de la Photo exhibition gave in to a very small number of letters of complaint, including one from a "survivor of incest," by removing photographs by Diane Ducruet of the artist cuddling and kissing her daughter. And in Germany, earlier this year, the Museum Folkwang in Essen pre-emptively cancelled a planned exhibition of Polaroids by the French-Polish artist Balthus featuring a model called Anna who posed for him from the age of eight to 16. This was despite Balthus’s work being shown in the Gagosian Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, to no complaints. 

The premise of art is that one can think up and convincingly construct for others, across time and place, a different life, another experience which becomes real to the reader or viewer because it has been written, painted, performed—not because the audience has been there, seen it, or done it themselves. Just think of all your favorite productions, books, or paintings and how they differ from your personal experience but seduce you into believing in them.  

At their core, these calls for censorship dictate that only certain groups or people can create art because only they have the experience. Underlying these protests, then, is the idea that we, the audience, are not capably of empathy, and that the purpose of art is not is not to create and convince people of other worlds but to reflect the reality as the self-selecting chosen ones see it. It is an exclusive and divisive outlook, and it is one that ultimately negates the basis of art.