“Any control imposed on art, regardless of the reasons behind it, is unacceptable to an artist,” Ai Weiwei told Index today. The Chinese artist was speaking to Index following the publication of an open letter by Artists for Palestine, which has been signed by more than 1,500 artists including Oscar-winning actor Olivia Colman, and which accuses art institutions in the West of “systematically repressing, silencing and stigmatising Palestinian voices and perspectives.” This claim raises serious concerns regarding the current climate of free speech within the art world.
Since the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October, when around 1,200 Israelis were killed and more than 200 taken hostage, Israel’s retaliatory bombardment of Gaza has reportedly killed more than 21,000 Palestinians. Many artists who have spoken out against the violence have faced backlash. In their statement, Artists for Palestine condemned those aiming to silence Palestinian voices and called for a public demand for a permanent ceasefire by the arts and culture sector.
The scale of the issue is made clear in the letter, which cites no fewer than 18 separate examples of artists allegedly being censored as a result of expressing support or solidarity with Palestinians, or simply by being Palestinian themselves, in light of the ongoing conflict. One example in the letter was the cancellation of an exhibition by Ai Weiwei, which was due to open in November at the Lisson Gallery in London. The gallery called off the event due to a post made by Ai on social media in relation to the conflict, a decision that the artist described as “lacking in rationality and comprehensibility”.
The reasoning behind the exhibition’s cancellation is disputed by the Lisson Gallery. A spokesperson for the gallery told Index that the exhibition had just been postponed, and that it was the result of a social media post which “did not refer to the current tragic situation in the Middle East” and was done “in agreement with Ai Weiwei”.
However, this claim was rejected by Ai, who confirmed that no future date had been set for the exhibition to take place and suggested that he had no control over the decision. “I find the assertion that the postponement was “done in agreement” unreasonable. I have dedicated substantial effort to preparing for this exhibition, and there is no intention on my part to advocate for its postponement,” he said.
“Should the gallery express a desire to postpone, my only option is to acquiesce. In our collaboration, they represent the exhibition side, while I stand merely as the creator.”
Another example of censorship cited in the letter also occurred in the UK. Israeli-British historian Professor Avi Shlaim was scheduled to give a lecture titled Zionism and the Jews of Iraq: a personal perspective at Liverpool Hope University in October, only to be told a week prior to the event that it would not be going ahead. Shlaim argued that such a decision was contrary to the principles of academic freedom and claimed that it was the result of political pressure from those who disagreed with his views on Zionism and Israel.
Liverpool Hope defended their decision to Index, stating that the lecture was not cancelled, but postponed until later in the year. A spokesperson for the university also said: “Many of our community are acutely distressed about the current situation in the Middle East, Gaza and Israel, especially those that have family and friends living there. At the current time we are prioritising support for these groups.
“Freedom of speech is, and always will be, core to our values.”
However, Professor Shlaim was unhappy with this explanation. He told Index: “I reject the explanation of Liverpool Hope-less University. The issue was not safety but freedom of speech and they failed to uphold it in my case. Yes, they offered to postpone my lecture but I refused.”
Liverpool Hope UCU expressed their support for the lecturer in a letter to the university’s vice chancellor, calling the decision a “serious curtailing of academic freedom”. The British Committee for the Universities of Palestine also offered their support, warning that “Liverpool Hope’s decision is unfortunately not an isolated one.”
The letter also refers to Adania Shibli, a Palestinian author who was due to be awarded the LiBeraturpreis award at the Frankfurt Book Fair for her novel Minor Detail, a story in part about the abduction and rape of a Palestinian girl by Israeli soldiers. To the outrage of the literary community, the organiser of the award, Litprom, disinvited the author and called off the award ceremony soon after Hamas attacked Israel. Although they originally suggested it was a joint decision with the author, Litprom retracted this comment after being challenged by Shibli’s publisher.
In an interview with the Guardian, Shibli spoke of her belief that a review of her book which complained that “all Israelis are anonymous rapists and killers, while the Palestinians are victims of poisoned or trigger-happy occupiers” was instrumental in the decision to postpone her award, but insists that the ordeal was “a distraction from the real pain, not more.”
Litprom has stressed that they did not intend to silence or censor Shibli for her work or her views, and instead claim to have made the decision to cancel the award ceremony for her own protection and wellbeing given the highly charged atmosphere surrounding the conflict.
In a statement to Index, the organisers said: “Litprom’s decision was made with the aim of protecting this event and also the prize winner from the politically heated discussion in Germany, which is not accessible to literary discourse.
“Instead, the aim was to enable a worthy celebration of what the award’s jury and many other literary critics consider to be a literary work of very high quality.
“Awarding the prize to Adania Shibli was never in question.”
This example is just one of many included in the open letter to have taken place in Germany. Also cited by Artists for Palestine was the case of Oyoun, a Jewish cultural centre in Berlin which had its funding cut by the Berlin Senate, who told Index that they “certainly feel censored”.
“Oyoun has explicitly refuted the accusations made by the Senate regarding ‘hidden antisemitism’”, the centre said in a press release. “Oyoun explicitly opposes antisemitism and rejects any form of hostility towards people.”
On the 7 December, Oyoun filed a lawsuit against the Berlin Senate. They stated that they wished to “draw attention to this intimidation, the associated grievances, the arbitrariness of the Berlin Senate, and the disastrous signal that the closure of Oyoun would have on artistic and freedom of expression in Germany.”
Candice Breitz, a Jewish filmmaker and artist who had her exhibition on sex work activists at the Saarland Museum’s Modern Gallery in Germany cancelled after commenting on the conflict, recently suggested that the state is weaponising false charges of antisemitism in order to repress artists.
It is clear from these incidents that censorship within the art world is a sizeable issue right now, especially but not exclusively of pro-Palestine voices. Each day brings another example from around the world – just last week a number of artists announced plans to cut ties with the Art Canada Institute after accusations that Arab and Muslim artists were being suppressed by sensitivity reviews. The week before, GQ Middle East Man of the Year winner, Palestinian musician Saint Levant, was told not to mention the conflict in his acceptance speech. This mirrors previous accusations that the BBC censored such speeches at the Scottish BAFTA Awards to avoid mentions of a ceasefire. The list goes on and Israeli artists have also been censored, such as several whose pieces were removed from the 10th annual edition of the Mediations Biennale at Art Istanbul Feshane last month. The organisers cited fears of violence as the reason.
The pattern of artists being deplatformed or silenced for showing support for either side is extremely worrying. Artists who express their views within the confines of the law should not have to risk their livelihoods to do so. Although several of the noted examples suggest that many institutions aren’t necessarily against pro-Palestine content on an individual level, they are still curtailing free speech due to fears of the potential backlash to these views. Such fears are not unfounded within the current context of the rise of Islamophobia and antisemitism, but these fears do not excuse censorship of artistic expression or opinion.