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XXX10.1177/0306422011419469Limits of FreedomLimits of Freedom
LIMITS OF FREEDOM
The defence of artistic expression took several paces backwards last year in the US, when the Smithsonian in Washington bowed to conservative pressure and removed a video installation by the late artist David Wojnarowicz which had been denounced as anti-Catholic. As Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott observes in a perceptive essay on the debacle, it marked the first notable case of censorship since the 90s. The decision to ban the work, he notes with concern, will make all galleries now vulnerable to censorship in the name of offence, undoing the valuable progress over the past decade that has created a more permissive climate for artists in the US. It is in their inconsistent response in the defence of art, more than in any other field of creative expression, that democracies most frequently show the limits of their support for the right to freedom of expression. When it comes to sex, religion and the forces of conservatism, there can be worryingly little to separate the supposedly free society from the repressive regime. In Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, the director of the Biennial lost his job this year after exception was taken to Mustapha Benfodil’s installation, which included text about a rape by Islamic militants (pp. 155-168); in Lebanon, a humorous image by celebrated Iranian artist Parastou Forouhar was censored for fear of causing religious offence (pp. 34-37); in London, galleries may call in the lawyers to vet shows before they open to forestall trouble – photographs of naked children, even by acclaimed photographers whose work is well known, may result in a visit from the police.
Every artist and gallery has to negotiate the degree of freedom society will allow them. As Kennicott observes, in order to display art that may shock or upset an audience, and protect their public funding, galleries are careful to underline their role as educational and social institutions, and the importance of maintaining an open space for a range of expression. Compare that balancing act with the experiences of the esteemed artist and gallery owner Rozita Sharafjahan (pp. 118-125), who runs a leading gallery in Tehran for
Protest in Kiev, Ukraine, 15 June 2011. Under new 'morality' laws, demonstrators claim that many works of art will be criminalised Credit: Gleb Garanich/Reuters 3