UK art institutions and self-censorship
When Jennet Thomas’s exhibition ‘The Unspeakable Freedom Device’ opened at the Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool in early July, it was with a sense of delayed vindication. Although the project was initially devised in response to a specific moment in the UK's political calendar, it had been postponed for more than 10 months. The show featured the eponymous video: a dystopian science fiction with colour-coded cults and a Margaret Thatcher impersonator. Commissioned by the Grundy to be shown from September to November 2014 (the run-up to a local by-election), its plot follows the two protagonists on their way to the fictitious ‘LIVING THATCHER DEVICE SHOW’ at Blackpool’s Winter Gardens, a venue famous for having hosted the annual Conservative Party conference during the Thatcher years. Thomas’s video caused controversy even before it was finished, when Blackpool councillors apparently became aware of an interview in which the artist had criticized the policies of the ruling, Conservative-led government. Citing the purdah period – the time between an announced election and the final election results, when central and local governments are forbidden from making any statements that could influence the outcome – the council postponed Thomas’s show. The notion that the video could have swayed the public vote is unconvincing, but the Grundy, which is owned and operated by the local council, had little recourse against the ruling.
The episode recalled another Thatcher-related act of censorship from 2011, when John Russell was commissioned to create new work for a show at Focal Point Gallery in Southend-on-Sea. The artist had planned to suspend a vinyl banner bearing the name ‘MARGARET THATCHER’ from the bridge spanning the town’s pedestrianized high street. But, as Russell recounted to me: ‘The idea was blocked by the council. No reasons were reported back but it was made clear that it couldn’t happen.’ Russell adapted his proposal to a banner depicting a pair of eyes looking down the street. Eventually, he revealed that they ‘were Thatcher’s eyes – although I didn’t make that clear at first’.
Thomas told me that the council’s actions felt like a form of ‘bullying’; they’re also indicative of the lack of clear guidance around censorship in the UK. It’s an issue that is prone to euphemism and secrecy, which makes the cases that do come to light all the more significant, in terms of their implications for freedom of expression in a country that purports to embrace liberal values. In addition to the censorship of existing works, there is evidence that a cocktail of pressures from officials, the public, sponsors and boards is encouraging arts institutions to ‘self-censor’: in other words, suppress the discussion or expression of certain ideas or themes, and programme ‘safe’ exhibitions. Of course, in an apparently polite and liberal regime, self-censorship can often be unconscious, especially when the contentious issues brought up by artworks are close to home. However, there is a grey area between self-editing, which we all do on a daily basis, and self censorship. Artists and arts administrators are often unwilling to discuss the problem openly for fear of compromising crucial funding and putting colleagues’ jobs at risk.
Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of the campaigning charity Index on Censorship, explained to me that ‘the decision not to programme a piece of work is related to the fear of consequences: the fear of hostile media, fear of damaging funding relationships, fear of [causing] offence or fear of – or actual – violent protest as a reaction to an art work’. In 2013, Index on Censorship’s conference ‘Taking the Offensive’ focused on ‘institutional self-censorship’ and was attended by 224 delegates from UK arts organizations, funders and artists. This July, the charity launched a series of ‘law packs’ aimed at arts professionals, to make clear their legal standing regarding public order, child protection, obscenity and racial and religious hatred, as well as recent counter-terrorism legislation, an area much debated in relation to broadcasting rights and teaching practices.
First published in Issue 173