Artists make the work. Institutions put the work on. That’s the deal. It’s a simple but weird relationship. The art would probably still live without the institution but the latter could not exist without the art. Still the institution is charged with incredible power – to commission, to programme, to bring the art into the public psyche. And when the work is threatened, power over it is in the hands of the institution.
The moment the threat comes is difficult to describe. Charged, surreal, heart beating fast. Not knowing where this is going to land or end. Will there be violence, humiliation, cuts to funding? A variety of narratives emerge. It’s difficult, for everyone. I’ve had a few brushes with controversy. I understand the pain and loss which occurs when the work is halted and I’ve seen how tough it is for good people in institutions under pressure, trying to do the right thing, unsupported and cornered. They can too easily become malleable. Fear takes hold, they cave in and the work is withdrawn. And something dies in everyone.
In 2004, after protests against my play Behzti (Dishonour) turned violent, the Birmingham Rep cancelled the run following police advice. The theatre’s position was immediately attacked by artists and cultural institutions, however politicians remained silent. One Home Office minister, possibly mindful of the large Sikh population in her constituency, remarked that the theatre had thankfully come to the right decision. The clear message from the police and government was that security was paramount and must override freedom of expression.
In 2010 my play Behud (Beyond Belief), was produced by Soho Theatre and Coventry Belgrade. There were rumours about protests. Before the dress rehearsal, a bombshell landed, the police asked the theatres to pull the play. This seemed to be based on no intelligence, merely the fear that something may happen. The theatres refused and the play went on without incident, but once more security was used as an excuse to curtail art.
In 2013, I was asked to remove some lines, which had previously been cleared, from a radio play for the BBC. My producer stood her ground, but was ultimately told if she kept the lines in, we were on our own.
Artists must have the freedom to explore the extremities of their imagination to provoke and poke around amidst the dirt and filth of the human condition. If not, art becomes sanitised and homogenous because it is only borne of fear. A corrosive fear that is the enemy of creativity.