Censorship in the art world

In March 2016, The Art Newspaper announced the results of the 2015 study conducted by the Copenhagen-based organisation Freemuse, summarizing cases of censorship and threats on artistic freedom in over 70 countries, with data “largely collected from publicly available sources, such as news media, partner organisations and independent reporters”. The study notes a 224% increase in acts of censorship in 2015 – there were 292 acts of censorship registered last year (China accounts for 126 cases).

The main reasons behind the violation of artistic freedom, including killings (3 artists were killed), abductions (6), attacks (24 physically attacked), threats (33 persecuted or threatened) and imprisonment (15 newly imprisoned, 31 imprisoned in previous years but still serving time), are political and religious pressures. A consequence of this is self-censorship: “no doubt the fear of political, religious and cultural pressure that censorship generates in artists and art institutions often leads to self-censorship”.

Although the report focused on totalitarian regimes, Europe’s leading political countries, as well as the US are on the list, while top artistic freedom violations were registered among musicians, filmmakers and writers.


Freemuse - Artistic Freedom Violations in 2015 by Violation Type

Click on the image to zoom


For the past two years we have been interested in the censorship of artists and their art, and wrote mainly on issues related to graffiti and street art censorship or brought into discussion how the internet may influence the rise or fall of censorship when it comes to art on the streets. We continue with a few recent examples of censorship in art.


Politics and censorship

According to Widewalls, despite Istanbul being chosen as the European Capital of Culture in 2010 and hosting numerous cultural events since then, Siyah bant, an online platform that documents cases of censorship in Turkey’s art scene, shows that freedom of information in Turkey continues to be suppressed. “The number of lawsuits that have been brought against people who have supposedly insulted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan through their art, in some form, is still rising. As a consequence, it appears that many artists practice preventive self-censorship in order to protect their creativity and to avoid interference of the government.”

In an interview with Istanbul-based artist and academic Ferhat Özgür in Hyperallergic, we find that the risk of being accused of terrorism becomes a reality, which may be applied to art as it is to journalism: “We have become a country where all oppositional thoughts, behavior, discourse, and meetings are associated with and seen as severe threats to the government. Arrests of peaceful petition signatories, police attacks at Honour Pride and World Women’s Day, censorship of criticism, cases of revilement towards Erdoğan — these are clear signs of the fact that we are heading toward a dictatorship. (…) Expanding the legal definition of a terror crime is likely to be one of the most controversial and dangerous obstacles to the use of social and individual democratic rights in the future. One can predict that anybody who criticizes the government, who raises his voice on behalf of freedom and democracy, who attends peace rallies, who marches for protecting environmental sources, who backs other minority rights, or who stands by those who are struggling with censorship will be labeled a potential terrorist.”

Cultural institutions in Turkey are also affected, as The Art Newspaper highlights: “Some institutions are rethinking their exhibition programmes and finding abstract ways to refer to the state and its power.” “I can recite a hundred horrific incidents from last year alone. It would be a pity to think of them as arbitrary or unrelated. This zeitgeist makes the culture wars of the 1980s feel look like toddler’s play,” says Vasif Kortun in the article, the director of SALT, one of Istanbul’s leading contemporary art spaces. Read more on the issue in Artnet.

In Egypt, Widewalls reports the authorities closing of Townhouse Gallery and Merit Publishing House: “On Monday (December 28th, 2015) around 7 pm, a group of government officials arrived at the Townhouse Gallery and Rawabet Theater. They identified themselves as members of the Tax Authority and the Censorship Authority and begun to scrutinize the venue. About half an hour later members of the freedom of speech associations arrived on the scene, including Fatma Serag, a lawyer at Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression. ‘For five hours, the places were inspected in detail. They checked personal laptops, ID’s, external hard’s, office documents, and licences right before the place was sealed with wax,’ Fatma Serag stated for The Daily News Egypt. One day after the gallery and the theater were sealed, the police officers closed Merit, a publishing house known for putting out edgy literature and supporting new talents.”

Earlier last year, in February, Egyptian customs officials in Alexandria seized a shipment of 400 copies of the book Walls of Freedom, described on the official website as “a powerful portrayal of the first three years of the Egyptian revolution that began on January 25, 2011”, created in close collaboration with artists on the frontlines of the battle, featuring essays by artists and experts across many fields. 

Al Jazeera spoke to Basma Hamdy, co-editor of the book: “We learned through an article published in an online Egyptian news site in Arabic stating that the book was ‘instigating revolt’ and ‘demonstrating how to resist army and police authorities’ and that it will be further investigated. We were never contacted directly but our distributor’s name in Egypt [the shipment was sent to him] was summoned for questioning according to the website’s source. Upon further investigation we learned that the censors were not in fact the ones making those statements. On the contrary, the head of the censorship authority said that the book had been approved before and was distributed and sold in Egypt. It is still available in book stores there. The problem happened when the books were stored for a long time in the port, even though storage fees have been paid regularly by the publisher in Germany, however, our distributor in Egypt did not collect them for logistical reasons. Our distributor’s lawyer suspects that this is what caused the Alexandria port authorities to open the boxes. The censors are qualified to judge content of foreign language books and they are the authority responsible for making a decision to ban or allow a book to be distributed in Egypt. However, it seems that someone must have found the book offensive because the statements ‘instigating revolt’ seem to emerge from the fact that the book documents the revolution. In my opinion this reflects back on the state of frenzy and paranoia that has become very common in Egypt.”

In January 2016, Hyperallergic writes about an art auction for the organization Reporters Without Borders being canceled after the Israeli embassy in Paris complained about the work of French artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest – a drawing of the Palestinian politician Marwan Barghouti in handcuffs and a brief handwritten note comparing him to Nelson Mandela. Quoted by the publication via Le Monde, in the Israeli embassy’s letter it was stated that: “This portrait puts up for auction a terrorist project in the guise of a man of peace by comparing him to a great and internationally recognized figure: Nelson Mandela.”

After being censored on Facebook, the 2016 work of Illma Gore, “Make America Great Again”, depicting Trump with tiny genitals, continued to raise issues. As the artist states on her website, the work was created “to evoke a reaction from its audience, good or bad, about the significance we place on our physical selves. One should not feel emasculated by their penis size or vagina, as it does not define who you are. Your genitals do not define your gender, your power, or your status. Simply put, you can be a massive prick, despite what is in your pants.” She later told Hyperallergic that she was threatened to be sued by someone claiming to be from Trump’s camp and was then assaulted by a Trump supporter in LA.

Illma Gore - Make America Great Again (2016) via Hyperallergic

Photo: Illma Gore – Make America Great Again (2016) via Hyperallergic

Art seems to be a threat even in schools. On January 15th, 2016, artist Maismenos, whose works have been featured on The re:art, announced on Instagram that his website had been censored in high school networks by the Portuguese Ministry of Education and Science of the previous government.

Going beyond censorship in a horrific violation of artistic freedom, Iranian artist and activist Atena Farghadani was recently released from prison, where she was subjected to forced virginity test among other abuses. She is currently on four year probation for depicting Iranian leaders as animals in a cartoon she published on Facebook “as a critique of a proposed law that would ban vasectomies for men and restrict access to contraception for everyone”.


The inside job: When art institutions find artworks unsuitable to be displayed

Charles Ray began working on his sculpture “Huck and Jim” in 2009, when invited by the Whitney Museum to propose, according to The New Yorker, “a sculpture for a public plaza outside the new building that the museum would occupy when it moved downtown, in the spring of 2015, from the Upper East Side to the meatpacking district. The Whitney’s identity as a museum of American art had led Ray to think about ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’ which he re-reads periodically. (…) Ray showed his preliminary design to Adam Weinberg, the Whitney’s director, and Donna De Salvo, its chief curator, and both of them knew immediately that it was going to be a great work of art. The doubts that seeped in during the next few months had nothing to do with aesthetics. They stemmed from the museum’s growing concern that this particular image of a naked African-American man and a naked white teen-ager in close proximity, presented in a public space with no other art works to provide context, might offend non-museumgoing visitors (…). In 2010, Weinberg told Ray that the sculpture could be installed anywhere on the museum’s property—on an outdoor terrace, or even in the main lobby—but not on the plaza. Ray could not agree to this.”

Photo: Charles Ray and Matthew Marks Gallery via Animal New York

Photo: Charles Ray and Matthew Marks Gallery via Animal New York

As the artist told author Calvin Tomkins, “I don’t want whatever becomes of it to be less than the original idea, and the original idea was for it to be there. Listen, I’m not naïve to the controversies this would generate—I told them that controversies would be a forest we had to navigate through. The precedent for their being naked is in the book. At night on the raft, Huck says, ‘We had no use for clothes nohow.’ Huck ran away, Jim was a runaway slave. They were outside.” Regarding the race issue, the artist also explains: “Huck never questions slavery. Toward the end of the book, he worries that by helping Jim to escape he’s really stealing the property of his Aunt Polly, who has never done him any harm, and that he’ll probably go to Hell for it. And then he says, ‘All right, I’ll go to Hell, but I won’t turn him in.’ That is a great American moment, and it still means something today.” Yet the sculpture was rejected.

In its top 18 most appalling international art world scandals of 2015, Artnet includes the censorship of Ines Doujak’s sculpture “Not Dressed for Conquering” by Bartomeu Marí, director of the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA), who was forced to resign, and the two responsible curators were fired. The work depicts former Spanish king Juan Carlos and Bolivian Labor leader Domitila Chúngara involved in a sexual act with a dog.

Ines Doujak - Not Dressed for Conquering via e-flux conversations

Ines Doujak – Not Dressed for Conquering via e-flux conversations

Recently, New York–based artist Darja Bajagić claimed on Tumblr that one of her works, “Bucharest Molly”, has been censored from an upcoming group show at Nicodim Gallery: “Of all of the artists, artworks in the show, you [Mihai Nicodim] found quite a serious issue with Molly–why is that? Was it the swastika? Molly’s pretty, ominous face?”. Following an article on Artnews, the gallery offered to put her work back in the show, although parts of her statement were challenged, and the artist declined reentry.

As food for thought, we’re ending this chapter with this 2015 article by Animal New York about 5 great works of public art that wouldn’t have existed if the city council’s censorship bill had been around then. Which would you include on the list?


Art in the public space. Who decides what stays and what goes?

It is still disputed whether muralists have rights to the buildings they paint on or not, and if graffiti can be copyright protected and not used without permission even for the most common products such as this Street Art Memory Game found by artist MTO, featured on The re:art also with stories related to censorship. A result of the ongoing debates regarding the status of art on the streets and the rights of its creators, as outlined in our previous articles, censorship and covering up artistic interventions are an imminent part of graffiti and street art.

Some artists cleverly turn the actual covering into an artwork as in the case of MOBSTR’s “The Curious Frontier Of Red” piece or Combo’s response to the anti-graffiti brigade repainting his piece, while artist Matthieu Martin found the whole cleansing process inspiring and launched a book documenting the “cover up”.

In most cases however, street pieces get buffed, sometimes by mistake – the case of C215’s mural, cleaned up by the same city that commissioned him – or for the wrong reasons. For instance, a mural by Miron Milić was erased despite its positive sustainability message painted on an elementary school. The school principal and a few others “saw 3 opened fingers which reminded them of the gesture that Serbian radicals were showing during the war on the Balkans few decades ago.” (text and photo below via VNA)

Miron Milić mural via VNA

A mural by Nano 4814 was erased, following the decision of the building’s owner, who according to Vandalog refused second thoughts, against efforts of dialogue of the Bien Urbain organizers – Public Art Festival in Besançon, France – who invited the artist to paint.

Other murals face extinction due to gentrification, a topic we began discussing a few years ago, or end up being covered by advertising – check Bellway’s replacement of Malarky’s mural with adverts or the recent covering of David de la Mano’s mural for WANG Urban Art Festival.

Malarky mural


Is art disturbing for social media users?

Perhaps not as disturbing as it is for Facebook or Instagram. Besides the already popular case of Facebook deleting the account of a French teacher who posted the famous piece by Gustave Courbet – “The Origin of the World”, and can now sue Facebook in France, the social media giant also removed an image of a painting by Evelyne Axell (“Ice Cream”, 1964) from the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s page, but it finally got back online.

Artnet reports a similar case of censorship, with Christoper Stout Gallery’s Facebook page temporarily blocked after users reported that a photograph of artist Lisa Levy sitting naked on the toilet was inappropriate. The artist described the show on the Facebook event as follows: “Ego and pretense has seriously fucked with the quality of work being made in the art world. I’m also tired of the bullshit trendy art dialogue about how the art world is driven by rich people who want shiny work and don’t care about meaning as well. But mostly, I think it will be weirdly fun to be naked in public.” In a Facebook post of the gallery it was stated that: “I find it so tellingly ironic that the same images that got our gallery banned from Facebook have been used in major consumer-geared media outlets such as Mashable and DETAILS, and also in media lifestyle publications like Dazeddigital, papermag, and Bushwick Daily, and in premier arts publications like Observer Arts, Widewalls, and artnet.”

Lisa Levy - The Artist is Humbly Present, photo: Christopher Stout Gallery via DAZED

Lisa Levy – The Artist is Humbly Present, photo: Christopher Stout Gallery via DAZED

A nude image also determined Facebook to block the account of Montreal-based digital art festival Sight + Sound, according to Artnet: “We are truly sorry to see that one of art’s most important objectives, that is to raise questions and, perhaps, from time to time, make things uneasy for the public, is not quite as evident to all as we might have hoped,” said the festival’s organizers then. Instagram also banned artist Lush recently for a nude mural.

At the end of 2015, Hyperallergic announced the launch of onlinecensorship.org, platform aiming to “encourage social media companies to operate with greater transparency and accountability toward their users as they make decisions that regulate speech.”


Why bother to gather all these examples? We believe it is important that people are aware of the multiple ways artists are silenced today, with increasing acts of censorship and abuse, and how freedom of expression can be limited to serve the interests of some individuals and institutions unable to accept contrary points of views, instead of seeking to offer opportunities of cultural development. Moreover, in art, misinterpretation or lack of dialogue may lead to permanent damage of artworks, while social, political or religious pressures can result in self-censorship. Therefore, we encourage promoting the necessary means for people, not only the savvy, to understand art and the need of various artistic perspectives, even if some are not according to one’s own beliefs, something we ourselves expect from others.