Artistic freedom and political activism: to boycott or not to boycott?

Sunday 19 October, 12.00 until 13.00, Conservatory, Barbican Creative Conundrums

A passionate debate over a cultural boycott of an Israeli-funded arts company dominated this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Two shows run by Israeli companies were cancelled due to safety fears (and protests) as a result. The Edinburgh Fringe actions follows that of prominent singers, artists and writers, from Brian Eno to Mike Leigh, Alice Walker and Adrienne Rich, all of whom have publicly rejected invitations to perform in Israel. Meanwhile, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) voted to demand that the Israel Association of United Architects be removed from the International Union of Architects. While this latter decision was overturned, it indicates that many in the cultural sector now view themselves as political arbiters of good and bad politics on the world stage and see the arts as legitimate weapons to be wielded politically.

How effective or indeed ethical are cultural boycotts? Some argue that it is a way to question and protest actions of a state, and that doing so has had a positive result in the past - citing the boycotts against South Africa. Others worry about the threat to artistic freedom; that it aligns people with states along national lines, and that boycotts, unhelpfully, politicise the arts. The furore over the Jewish film festival at the Tricycle, and the cancellation of the controversial art performance recreation of a ‘human zoo’, Exhibit B, at the Barbican after protests at its opening night, are just recent examples of how politics and the arts can lead to censorship.

How far will such boycotts go? When New York City’s Metropolitan Opera cancels plans for worldwide video transmission and radio broadcast of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, due to claims that the work is ‘anti-Jewish’, who can complain, once the arts have been volunteered up as a political football? Are cultural boycotts an example of an artistic good or bad?

JJ Charlesworth
senior editor, ArtReview

Naomi Foyle
award winning author; Astra, Seoul Survivors, The World Cup, The Night Pavilion; co-founder of British Writers in Support of Palestine

Gill Lloyd
director, Artsadmin

Igor Toronyi-Lalic
arts editor, the Spectator; co-director, the London Contemporary Music Festival

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there

Produced by
Dr Tiffany Jenkins writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there
Recommended readings
Tiffany Jenkins: The Exhibit B censorship

Protestors objecting to Exhibit B show are holding freedom of expression hostage to censorship. No-one has a right not to be offended, writes Tiffany Jenkins.

Tiffany Jenkins, Scotsman, 26 September 2014

J.J. Charlesworth on cultural boycotts J.J. Charlesworth, Art Review, September 2014

If the Edinburgh Fringe thinks it’s fine to give in to bigots, I might have to give up on the Edinburgh Fringe

When is a great international arts festival not a great international arts festival? When it can’t uphold even the most basic principles of free speech.

Igor Toronyi-Lalic, Spectator, 31 July 2014

Guidelines for the International Cultural Boycott of Israel

The cultural boycott campaign against apartheid South Africa has been a major source of inspiration in formulating the Palestinian boycott calls and their criteria, despite some crucial differences. In particular, the Palestinian boycott, unlike the South African cultural boycott, is institutional and does not target individuals as such.

Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, July 2014

Why Boycott Culture? – Reflections on the Southbank Debate

Naomi Foyle summarises the arguments, and asks what next for the academic and cultural boycott in the UK?

Naomi Foyle, British Writers In Support of Palestine, 23 July 2011

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