What's the future for artistic freedom?Monday 7 November, 19.30 - 21.00 , Hellenic American Union, Massalias 22, 10680, Athens, Greece Battle of Ideas Europe
Freedom of expression has long been one of the signifiers of a free society. Limitations on artistic expression, and attempts to police visual culture, from art to advertising, undermine both the freedom of the artist and the right of the public to exercise their own discretion. Yet, attempts to ‘protect’ the public from supposedly harmful materials remain common, and do not just come from the state or conservative elements in society. They are also made in the name of opposing sexism and racism, and ‘offence’ more generally. From bans on sexist pop songs on British university campuses and the cancellation of the racially provocative Exhibit B exhibition in London to Germany’s arrest of satirist Jan Böhmermann for composing an insulting poem about Turkish President Erdogan, it seems freedom of expression is under threat as much as ever in Europe.
In Greece, much censorship still takes a traditional form: a 2007 video installation by artist Eve Stefani was seized by police, who also arrested the manager of the exhibition for ‘insulting national symbols and public indecency’ by juxtaposing the Greek national anthem with pornographic imagery. This was followed in 2012 by Golden Dawn and a number of religious groups shutting down the Greek premiere of the play Corpus Christi, which depicted Jesus and his apostles as homosexuals, and the banning of nude photographs projected on public building in Athens by Belgian artist Kris Verdonck - after a complaint from a single priest. Nevertheless, censorship in the name of ‘liberal’ causes has also emerged. This year, Jumbo’s ‘Hit like a man’ advert was taken off-air after it was claimed it legitimised violence against women, while the National Centre for Blood Donation attracted criticism from the gender equality watchdog for its ‘sexist’ portrayal of nurses in its ‘Now, you too can be a hero’ campaign. Elsewhere in Europe, the trend is for censoring adverts on health and mental health grounds, with Norway and Spain restricting adverts for fattening foods, while London Mayor Sadiq Khan banned ‘body shaming’ adverts in the wake of the controversial Protein World ‘Beach body ready’ campaign.
The case for censorship today is often expressed in the language of the ‘media effects theory’, which suggests even adults are impressionable and need to be protected from sensitive material, or in the language of psychiatry, with claims that being exposed to something which one finds offensive or upsetting can trigger significant psychological harm. But are these new arguments for policing art and advertising really something new, or is it an old-fashioned, paternalistic attitude to the public dressed up in modern scientific jargon? Is advertising even a free expression issue or should it be held to different standards? Is there ever a good argument for censoring artists or for regulating the images and ideas that the public can be exposed to?
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Senior lecturer in sociology and social policy, Swansea University; author, The Semiotics of Happiness: rhetorical beginnings of a public problem
head, artists' advisory services; producer, Artsadmin; vice chair, a-n The Artists Information Company
Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics, Hellenic American University
lecturer, art & photography theory, Athens School of Fine Art
lecturer in sociology, University of Loughborough; author, The Rise of Lifestyle Activism: From New Left to Occupy