Should there be limits to artistic freedom?

Tuesday 15 November, 21.30 - 23.00 , Maus Hábitos, Rua Passos Manuel 178, 4º Piso, 4000-382 Porto, Portugal Battle of Ideas Europe

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Back in the 16th century, ‘The Last Judgement’, Michelangelo’s famed Sistine Chapel fresco was deemed unholy by many clerics, with a pupil of Michelangelo’s later adding loin cloths to the once nude figures. Fast forward to the 1980s and the sexually explicit images in the photography exhibition ‘Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment’, generated such outrage that the gallery cancelled the show before it even began. In recent times, the cancellation of the racially provocative Exhibit B exhibition in London and Germany’s arrest of satirist Jan Böhmermann for composing an insulting poem about Turkish President Erdogan are just two examples that suggest freedom of artistic expression is under as much threat as ever in Europe. 

In Portugal, the Serralves Foundation recently hosted Ahmet Muhsin Tüzer, the so-called ‘rocking imam’ from Turkey who had been denied permission to give a concert in Portugal by Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs. Portuguese officials made representations to the Turkish ministry on his behalf, but support for free expression of art in Portugal is not always guaranteed. In Faro in 2012, ‘Portugal at the gallows’, an artwork featuring the Portuguese flag hanging off a garrotte in order to highlight the Portuguese economic and political crisis, was removed by police. Meanwhile artist Paulo Mendes abandoned the project ‘1st Avenue’ after Porto authorities denied permission to display a giant black and white Portuguese flag to on the façade of the gallery in the Avenida dos Aliados Axa Building. But censorship is not the preserve of conservative or religious sections of society. Instead, censors often profess to hold liberal and progressive values. For example, students demand ‘trigger warnings’ to protect them from literature they deem offensive, new editions of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn have removed potentially offensive words. In the UK student unions have banned offensive pop songs. Meanwhile Portuguese author Almeida Leitão Bento Fernandes was convicted of libelling her in-laws in a literary drama about her family’s emigration to the United States, and the European Court of Human Rights found the complainants’ right to respect for their private life trumped the author’s right to freedom of expression. Finally, the Palace of the Dukes of Bragança in Guimarães, prematurely closed ‘Requiem by the young painter’, an installation by artist Filipe Marques exploring the relationship between the Church and the Nazi regime, because of a small number of negative visitor comments.

Freedom of artistic expression has long been one of the signifiers of a free society, yet today cultural institutions rarely seem to have the moral authority to resist calls for bans and support challenging works of art. So if, the flourishing of great artists, writers, composers and poets requires an atmosphere of freedom, how best can we resist the censors and encourage a new era of artistic expression?

Tickets: €3, payable on the door