For many, the removal of the Lord Chamberlain’s right to censor the London stage in 1968 was hailed as a key liberalising moment of the Sixties. Yet in contemporary Britain there exists an uneasy attitude to how we approach offensive art. A year ago, the Barbican was forced by activists to close down an exhibition that was deemed offensive to black minority communities. More recently, the audience booed an ‘offensive’ rape scene in a performance at the Royal Opera House, and, in response, the company modified the scene. In August, popular US rapper Tyler the Creator was refused a visa to enter the UK on the grounds his work ‘encourages violence and the intolerance of homosexuality’ despite making numerous visits in recent years with comparatively little outrage.
For many in the arts world, the limits of free expression can be difficult to understand. Very few instances of overt censorship exist, yet from the closure of controversial 2004 play Behzti onwards, there has been a growing trend of venues and publishers being willing to pre-emptively withdraw or edit work either on health and safety grounds or for fear of causing offence. Exhibit B protestors, like the booing audience at the ROH, argued that they were legitimately expressing their opposition to work they find insulting. Following the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris this year, many proclaimed ‘Je Suis Charlie’ in solidarity with offensive speech; yet there was less outcry when controversial comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala was arrested for expressing sympathy for the murderers and found his work censored by the French state for routines accused of anti-Semitism and racism.
Is artistic freedom under threat from ‘mob rule’ of community activists and noisy Twitter campaigns by the over-sensitive minority? How should artists respond to claims that their work is offensive? Are ‘trigger warnings’ that alert people to something they might want to avoid a solution? Or do they add to a climate of disapprobation where some ideas are seen as ‘out of bounds’? Are the arts themselves a ‘safe space’ to discuss topics and themes we would not tolerate in our day-to-day lives, or does that defence undermine free expression for all? Isn’t it the role of the artist to go beyond the boundaries, to challenge our perceptions and, on occasion, to cause offence?