Manick Govinda: Defending the free expression of creepy clowns


Battle of Ideas 2016
A weekend of thought-provoking public debate taking place on 22 and 23 October at the Barbican Centre. Join the main debates or satellite events.

Comedy and censorship: Are you kidding me?
Is the fear of offence killing comedy? Jodie Ginsberg, Timandra Harkness, Will Franken, Tom Walker and Steve Bennett with chair Andrew Doyle.

When: 23 October, 10-11:30am
Where: Cinema 2, Barbican, London
Tickets: Available from the Battle of Ideas

Creepy clowns: Horror,social media and urban myth
What the hell is going on? Are creepy clowns a genuine threat – horror manifest in the real world?

When: 22 October, 4-5:15pm
Where: Pit Theatre, Barbican, London
Tickets: Available from the Battle of Ideas

From hate speech to cyber-bullying: Is social media too toxic?
What of the free speech of those harassed into silence by a stream of abuse? And what of the abuse itself, consisting, as it so often seems to, of fantasy punishments and name-calling? Is that speech worth defending?

When: 22 October, 4-5:15pm
Where: Pit Theatre, Barbican, London
Tickets: Available from the Battle of Ideas

I remember the happy clowns of my childhood when the family would sit in front of the TV during the festive holidays to delight at the magnificent performances of the colourful pranksters in Billy Smart’s Christmas Circus.

This sensibility of the clown as the fool, the butt or object of ridicule, loveable but sad, hiding a deep melancholy beneath the exaggerated forced smile was prevalent throughout the twentieth century and was a muse for poets and artists such as Picasso, Bruce Nauman and Uno Rondinone.

The image of the clown changed as I grew older. With glam rock in the 1970s came Leo Sayer’s clown phase and David Bowie’s Lindsay Kemp phase, which re-surfaced in his video for Ashes to Ashes.

But why has the clown now leapt from the realms of the circus, pantomime and contemporary art into our everyday reality? It may the lead up to Halloween but in suburban America the craze of the “creepy” or “killer clown” has reached hysterical proportions. Unsettling, scary individuals dressed as clowns are reported across the media in the USA terrorising the public.

According to Time the craze began in South Carolina in late August where clowns were allegedly spotted trying to lure children into the woods. These reports were unsubstantiated but through meme culture and the media, the frenzy has now gripped the UK. The hysteria has led to lynch mobs hunting down clowns and the banning of clown suits. I have friends and family who told me that school authorities have sent letters, emails and texts to parents warning them about clowns. A policeman even came to visit a school asking secondary school pupils to be on alert.

With the school authorities and the law further whipping up a moral panic about psychotic clowns on the loose, it’s no wonder that children with highly fertile imaginations are spooked and parents are feeling anxious. One twelve-year-old girl daren’t leave the house and sleeps in her parents’ bed. This story has become a familiar one. The panic has even led to the cancellation of a theatre group, The Clown Doctors (the actors wear red noses), who were due to perform in a children’s hospital in Newcastle because “the hospital security said they had been placed on a local hit list for the killer clown craze”.

Fancy dress shops have been asked by the police not to sell clown costumes to anyone suspicious and the NSPCC’s Childline received more than 120 calls from worried children. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and online news services are awash with impending doom that killer clowns are on the rampage in our communities. What the hell is going on?

Of course, young people love playing pranks on each other but any adult trying to scare children out of their wits by chasing them, or lurking in dark areas, shouldn’t be surprised if they get a punch on the red nose. However, proactively hunting down creepy clowns is stretching the horror narrative a step too far.

Clowns are ambivalent figures where sadness and humour intermingle, but as with most romantic dispositions, there is a dark side to the persona. French Romantic Poets such as Theophile Gautier, Gerard de Nerval and Charles Baudelaire imagined a dark transformation from the happy face/sad visage of the Pierrot to a more tragic figure: “The mask began to give way to reveal a skull beneath, the presence of death.” 

The transformation of the clown into the grotesque is indicative of the times we live in. We increasingly feel powerless, disconnected, anxious, paranoid, traumatised, in need of being protected, triggered by certain books, films, art and speech that make some people feel uncomfortable. In this world the clown has become the bogeyman, the outsider, the anti-social, anti-establishment figure of imminent doom, rather like Heath Ledger’s mesmeric portrayal of the nihilistic, terrorist Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

This clown’s performance of terror in our everyday lives reveals the growing breakdown of public space as civil, social space. Sociality, the sphere of social intercourse, and sodality – the sense of fraternity and belonging to community in deep and multiple ways – are eroded and replaced by narcissistic attention seeking, exhibitionist tendencies.

The “killer clown” meme is the extreme selfie, demanding that we look at them, that perhaps beneath the grotesque clown mask he or she may have some hidden depths of quality, but sadly that is not the case. They are simply creeps.

Having said that, social media and public space should allow for a multiplicity of expressions. The tiny minority of extreme, aggressive clown’s performing outside of the frameworks of art, theatre, film, circus, the internet and Halloween cannot scream victimhood if they are given a hiding for being deliberately anti-social. However, most of the menace seems to be hyped up via meme culture, the media, hearsay and unsubstantiated stories. It’s how urban myths are created and the craze will eventually die down and fade away.

The greater question we should be asking ourselves is how is it that children, young people, adults and the authorities alike have come to be gripped by this public performance of perceived terror?[/vc_column_text][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1485724639176-d1dda485-42a7-8″ taxonomies=”8826″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Manick Govinda: Artistic expression is a value that must be defended

Battle of Ideas 2015
A weekend of thought-provoking public debate taking place on 17 & 18 October at the Barbican Centre. Join the main debates or satellite events.

5 Oct
Does free expression have its limits?
Join Index on Censorship magazine editor Rachael Jolley for a Battle of Ideas satellite event to debate the limits of free expression. With Dr Wendy Earle, Anshuman Mondal, Kunle Olulode and Tom Slater.
When: Monday 5th October, 7-8:30pm
Where: Nunnery Gallery, Bow Arts Trust, 181 Bow Rd, London E3 2SJ
Tickets: £4.89 through Eventbrite
Full details

17 Oct
Artistic expression: where should we draw the line?
Join Manick Govinda, Index on Censorship CEO Jodie Ginsberg, Cressida Brown, Nadia Latif, Nikola Matisic with chair Claire Fox at the Battle of Ideas festival.
When: 17 October, 4-5:15pm
Where: Cinema 2, Barbican, London
Tickets: Available from the Battle of Ideas
Full details

It’s just over a year ago since a mob of anti-racist activists closed down South African theatre director Brett Bailey’s tableaux vivants work Exhibit B in London. The work had actors depicting the horrors of historical slavery, and colonial racism as museum exhibits, echoing the human zoo exhibits of 19th century, which still took place right up until the 1950s.

The work was powerful, visceral, steeped in humanity and stirred a powerful emotional response in the spectator. Yet, it seemed that this physical artistic expression was a step too far for many on the left and Britain’s black community. Most of them, and the 23,000 who signed the petition calling for the Barbican to shut down the work, hadn’t seen the performance. Instead, they felt triggered by a series of publicity photographs of actors performing actions of enslavement and of human bondage.

An image of a semi-naked black woman, sitting, waiting on a bed with her back to the camera, and the reflection of her face and eyes looking back at the viewer, composed and calm was uncomfortable viewing. The living tableau, entitled A Place in the Sun, colonial exhibit, Paris, 1920s was based on a factual account of a French colonial officer who kept a black woman chained to his bed, exchanging food for sexual services. This took place during the French, Belgian and Portuguese scramble for rubber in the Congo. It is a difficult image, the performance brought home the tenderness and active being of the captive woman and stirred emotions of both anger and sadness, as did all the tableaux which took us right to the present day, depicting deported refugee individuals who were killed by the hands hired immigration border security forces. It is hard to disagree with the Brett Bailey’s sincerity that the work is a hard-hitting indictment against racism.

Yet, for the protesters Exhibit B was “an exhibition by a privileged white man who benefited from the oppression of African people in the country [South Africa] in which he grew up, which objectifies black people for a white audience.”

At the opening night in London, 200 angry protesters, with the assistance of the British police force, successfully censored the work. Exhibit B will probably never be performed in England for the foreseeable future.

In the past, artistic, particularly literary works such as DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, James Joyce’s Ulysses to name a few were banned by state officials and enforced by draconian laws such as the Obscene Publications Act 1959. However, recent censorship of artistic expression is no longer the domain of the state and its officials. It is now curbed by radical activists and also by curators and arts professionals who feel too morally weak to defend and stand by controversial works of art. The police are now called in for their advice on artistic expression and inevitably, in the name of ‘public safety’ works of art are censored from the public.

Only recently we witnessed the censorship of a witty series of satirical photographs by an anonymous artist called Mimsy (sorry Banksy, you’ve been up-staged) depicting the popular children models of Sylvanians (cute furry creatures that akin to those in Beatrix Potter’s tales) innocently enjoying leisurely pursuits such as family picnics, sun-bathing on a beach, having a few pints or just simply watching TV where they are threatened by masked, armed creatures in black uniform called MICE-IS “a fundamentalist terror group [threatening] to annihilate every species that does not submit to their hardline version of sharia law”. However, this wasn’t taken down due to any law being contravened. The work, pulled from an exhibition at the Mall Galleries in London entitled Passion for Freedom (oh the irony) was a result of the gallery managers asking advice from the police as they felt uncomfortable with the “potentially inflammatory content of Mimsy’s work”. The police agreed that the work was inflammatory and couldn’t guarantee the safety of the gallery or visitors, therefore £36,000 would have to be paid to the police force for security cover.

Censorship by fear of terror, by mob-rule, by “triggering’ traumatic feelings, the growing self-censorship of artistic works and the British state’s lily-livered position in defending free expression come into arbitrary play, leading to a worrying situation where potentially any work of art can be censored.

It’s easy to morally grandstand and point the finger at the horrific killings of cartoonists and bloggers in Bangladesh and Iran and criticise the Chinese authorities for their ‘house imprisonment’of Ai Weiwei, but if we cannot defend all forms of artistic expression from the high arts to popular culture, we are seriously compromising artistic freedom for fear of upsetting various communities of interests, be they Muslims, feminists or anti-racists.

I am currently reading Azar Nafisi’s brilliant latest book, Republic of Imagination (2014) where she writes a chapter on the US writer Mark Twain’s 1884 novel Huckleberry Finn as a major inspiration in her life and moral outlook. The novel is currently triggering some US literary students and professors into a state of apoplectic trauma as the word ‘nigger’ is used 219 times in the novel. The decision to re-publish the novel and replace the word ‘nigger’ with ‘slave’ is a dangerous re-writing of history and art. Nafisi defends artistic expression unreservedly and quotes from one of Twain’s notebooks as follows:

“Expression – expression is the thing – in art. I do not care what it expresses, and I cannot tell, generally, but expression is what I worship, it is what I glory in, with all my impetuous nature.” (Republic of Imagination, p.88)

Art should be dangerous, unsettling, funny, an emotional journey, beautiful, entertaining and yes, obscene. Artistic expression, in all its manifestations, is a value that must be defended in our Western democracies. We should heed Mark Twain’s wise words.

Manick Govinda is head of artists’ advisory services for ArtsAdmin

Govinda is participating in the 17 Oct Artistic expression: where should we draw the line?Battle of Ideas session with Index on Censorship CEO Jodie Ginsberg, Cressida Brown, Nadia Latif, Nikola Matisic with chair Claire Fox at the Battle of Ideas festival.

Index on Censorship magazine editor Rachael Jolley is speaking at Does artistic expression have its limits? at the Bow Arts Trust on Monday 05 October