Since the arrival of the first colonialists almost more than 250 years ago Australia has been gripped in one form of cultural fear or another.
From the stigma of being ‘poms’ shipped to an island prison, to rejection of traditional peoples with a claim of terra nullus being used to justify the occupation and near extinction of a race of people, the hatred of Chinese immigrants during our mining heyday, a White Australia policy, to our link with the United States forged in two world wars, even our relationship with our Kiwi cousins, the arrival of even more 10 pound poms, along with ship loads of people from Europe, to the Vietnamese boat people, more recently those trying to illegally slip into Australia by boat and currently our relationship with China.
Art is often a battle ground for cultural fear. This has been illustrated just recently with the temporary rejection of Badiucao’s works from the The Art of Defiance – Hong Kong: Revolution of our time exhibition at m2 gallery in Sydney. Art is a visual form of protest, it cannot be buried from sight – unless of course it is banned from exhibition in the crudest form of censorship.
Artists push the boundaries of acceptability, that is their role. If artists created only what is acceptable today, then we would not learn anything new, there would be no tomorrow. The role of censorship is to protect the public from anything considered harmful. There is a natural tension between artist and censor. The problem can be that what is harmful to one person may be a delight to another person. Censorship is often imposed for personal reasons as much as public interest.
Fear plays a large part in censorship. We ask who may be offended? Sometimes it is not the public at large, rather the potential for reputational harm to the gallery, or even fear of harm to an individual. Where the risk of harm is known and understood, then censorship may be acceptable. Often there is no evidence of potential harm, only a suspicion.
Galleries exist to display art to the public. There is no other reason for them to exist. Along with a commitment to art and to artists comes a responsibility to share the risk of offending someone. If galleries cannot support artists then why should artists bother to exhibit at galleries? Galleries are also someone’s business and livelihood, therefore the fear of reputational damage is very real. The vetting of exhibitions should take place prior to the event. Censorship after an event has commenced is unfair and inequitable to both the artist and to the public.
Censorship isn’t the sole realm of gallery owners and bureaucrats. Governments in many countries apply censorship in an effort to reduce the freedom of choice. Funding bodies can also succumb to fear. Photographer Serrano in 1987 dipped a plastic crucifix into a cup of his own urine and dubbed it Piss Christ and as a result is reported to have lost grants and had threats upon his life. Then there is social media, the behometh being Facebook, which has taken it upon itself to be the guardian of public taste, in a selective manner, its algorithms and human content editors frequently removing images that feature nudity. Curiously Facebook’s standards in public decency don’t extend to removing offensive trolls or preventing the publication of live video’s of terrorist related events. Its appears Facebook’s desire to save us from our most basic human need is tempered by their need to attract advertising revenue!
The freedom to choose is important. It is the only thing worth fighting for. So many people in our world do not have freedom of choice. Galleries have a right to choose what and who they exhibit, artists have a right to choose where they exhibit and the public have a right to choose where they visit or spend their money. A gallery seeking to impose censorship must weigh the reputational risk of censorship against the reputational risk of non-censorship.