Artistic expression: where should we draw the line?

Saturday 17 October, 16.00 until 17.15, Cinema 2, Barbican Artistic Freedom

The tragic murder of journalists from French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo earlier this year provoked international outrage and a renewed commitment from political leaders and campaigners to defend free speech, no matter how offensive. Yet in the UK there has been growing anxiety about the state of free expression in the arts - a sense heightened further since the Barbican was forced to close controversial production Exhibit B last year due to protests over its recreation of a colonial-era ‘human zoo’. Such is the prevalence of censorship issues in the arts that Cressida Brown commissioned and directed Walking The Tightrope - The Tension Between Art and Politics, a collection of eight short plays on the subject, prompted by the boycott of an Israeli hip-hop troupe at the Edinburgh Fringe festival last year.

Since Hebdo, further controversies have abounded: in August, the National Youth Theatre was accused of censoring Homegrown, a planned play about radicalised young British Muslims joining ISIS whilst the Royal Opera House amended its production of Guillaume Tell after audience outrage at a graphic rape scene. On the comedy circuit, both ‘misogynist’ Dapper Laughs and feminist performer Kate Smurthwaite have had gigs pulled due to planned protests.

In almost all cases, critics of these artworks deny overtly censorious intent, arguing they are exercising a right to protest and criticise work they find offensive. Free expression campaigners Index On Censorship have themselves noted an alarming trend of self-censorship in the arts world, with venues often cancelling controversial productions either on health and safety grounds or from fear of the onerous policing costs. Yet there has been some disquiet caused by suggestions that arts professionals should be more willing to work in partnership with police to avoid such incidents, suggesting that will only heighten the strength of the ‘heckler’s veto’. Furthermore, the outcry among members of International PEN to a posthumous award to Charlie Hebdo – with many writers complaining that the magazine was all too willing to engage in offensive caricaturing of oppressed Muslim communities – suggests many in the arts world feel artistic expression does have limits.

Does any topic or depiction get a free ride once it is described as art? And what of artists who go out of their way to shock and outrage, possibly more by a desire for publicity than artistic considerations? Is it possible to draw a line between legitimate artistic or moral criticism of an offensive artwork and calls for the work to be censored? Should artists and arts professionals bear some responsibility for work that is highly likely to generate a heated, even violent, reaction? Are calls for potentially offensive works to display ‘trigger warnings’ and similar advisory labels provide a sincere attempt to avoid upset in sensitive viewers or do they encourage a censorious outlook? Should some topics or language be off limits, irrespective of intent or background of the artist? How should the arts world respond to an offence-sensitive age?

Listen to the debate

Cressida Brown
artistic director, Offstage Theatre; conceived, curated and directed Walking The Tightrope: the tension between Art and Politics

Jodie Ginsberg
chief executive, Index on Censorship

Manick Govinda
head, artists' advisory services; producer, Artsadmin; vice chair, a-n The Artists Information Company

Nadia Latif
theatre director; credits include, Homegrown (NYT); Octagon (Arcola Theatre); Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against A Brick Wall (Soho Theatre)

Nikola Matisic
opera singer and pedagogue; founder, Operalabb

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive

Produced by
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
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Stella Odunlami and Kehinde Andrews, Guardian, 27 September 2014

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