How the Art World Can Fight a ‘Culture of Censorship’

Index on Censorship has launched an initiative to help artists navigate draconian limits on free-speech

Do arts organizations and artists in the UK need support to deal with issues of censorship? A new initiative from the London-based nonprofit Index on Censorship, which ‘campaigns for and defends free expression worldwide’, suggests just that. The recently launched Arts Censorship Support Service is, says Index CEO Jodie Ginsberg, responding to a climate of polarized political views and trial by social media, concerns about the UK government’s anti-extremism Prevent strategy, and worries over the Online Harms White Paper with its catch-all approach to online safety. ‘It’s about a culture of censorship and about giving confidence. So the message I want to give is for artists and organizations to feel confident, to feel supported.’

It’s this notion of a censorship ‘culture’, rather than any specific political push to outlaw free speech, that Index is most concerned about. Ginsberg believes that ‘arts organizations and artists are increasingly self-censoring’. Why? Because, she says, ‘they’re frightened of either the mob reaction that could come through social media or reactions such as a funder pulling its support. They are therefore opting for more ‘safe’ options.’

The new service is available to anyone working in the UK cultural sector, whether employed or freelance, with initial consultations free of charge. It aims to provide case-specific advice and support, drawing on both the skills of Index staff and what is described as a ‘network of senior-level cultural sector and legal professionals with significant experience in managing complex ethical, reputational and legal issues’.

‘Kiss My Genders’, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: Hayward Gallery; photograph: Thierry Bal 

Freelance arts producer Julia Farrington, who is associate arts producer at Index, says that a big part of the initiative is about ‘understanding the reasons and pressures on artists, gatekeepers and curators that lead organizations and individuals to self-censor’. She adds: ‘The more we’re able to understand, the more we’re able to push back and hopefully keep the space for artistic expression as wide and as open as possible.’

That space, believes Ginsberg, is also threatened by the UK government’s moves to address public concerns around online safety and define the obligations of tech companies who profit from our data. The Online Harms White Paper, which was published in April, has come under considerable criticism for its broad-brush approach and vague definitions of what could be considered harmful content. The paper was open to consultation until 1 July and Index was one of many organizations that responded by voicing its concerns and suggesting changes. Ginsberg points out that once you go beyond legal definitions and sanction the removal of ‘unacceptable’ but not actually illegal content, ‘you’re into dangerous territory because you’re effectively sanctioning the removal of legal speech – offensive, shocking, but nevertheless legal’. She continues: ‘We’re concerned that some of the measures being proposed in the White Paper may have the effect of censoring legal content that might be offensive. Often, artistic work falls into that category because it’s deliberately pushing the boundaries.’

Index is not alone in challenging the approach set out in the White Paper. When it was initially launched, a letter published by The Guardian was co-signed by representatives from the civil liberties and digital rights groups Big Brother Watch, Article 19, the Open Rights Group and English PEN (part of the global writers’ association PEN International). The letter concluded that the White Paper revealed ‘an approach that would make China’s state censors proud’ and would ‘give the UK the widest and most prolific internet censorship in an apparently functional democracy’. Antonia Byatt, outgoing director of English PEN, was one of the co-signatories. She says: ‘We have particular concerns that the White Paper proposes to regulate literally the entire internet, and censor anything non-compliant.’

Artists, of course, are using both the physical and online space to explore, challenge and debate in ways that algorithms and ham-fisted regulations don’t easily comprehend – art, after all, thrives on ambiguity. Ginsberg argues that, as political positions become more entrenched and views more polarized, creating room for nuance and reflection is a vital aspect of any freedom of expression campaign. ‘Often the space to explore common ground is most effectively done through art, because it forces people to think outside their usual boxes – it’s really important that we protect and preserve those spaces where people can explore these different positions.’ Whether self-inflicted or otherwise, the threat of censorship is clearly something the arts needs to take seriously.

Main image: ‘Kiss My Genders’, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: Hayward Gallery; photograph: Thierry Bal

Chris Sharratt is a freelance writer and editor based in Glasgow. Follow him on Twitter: @chrissharratt

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