Is nothing sacred?

Self-censorship, market forces, nudity in Trafalgar Square and offence were all up for discussion at the launch of Index’s on Censorship magazine’s “Art Issue” on Wednesday at the Free Word Centre.

Artists Langlands & Bell gave a firsthand account of what it was like to have their work censored by the Tate despite their willingness to alter parts of the work to ensure the gallery was not in contempt of court. Ben Langlands spoke of the frustration they felt at not being able to show their work in its entirety – and with Tate for not being transparent about the reasons behind the removal of their film  “Zardad’s Dog”, part of their Turner-nominated The House of Osama Bin Laden.

But contemporary politics is of course only one factor determining what art the public gets to see.  Langlands also raised the subject of financial forces taking their toll on free expression in the art world. Artist Peter Kennard, who was in the audience, argued that, from the moment a student enrols in art school, censorship is at play, finding a comfortable home in art institutions, supported as they are by corporate sponsors. But London Mayor Boris Johnson’s culture chief Justine Simon argued that all subjects are fair game for artists. Another member of the audience, a legal consultant specialising in art law, spoke of the real danger galleries face if they choose to exhibit controversial art – often resulting in a visit from the police.

The Guardian’s art critic Adrian Searle lamented the fact that gallery publicity materials constantly insisted an exhibition would challenge preconceptions. “I can’t remember the last time that happened”, he said. “I want the right to be offended; I don’t want someone telling me what I can and can’t look at.”

Yasmine Alibhai-Brown, who spoke of her firsthand experience of paying the price for artistic freedom, denied the existence of any “fantastic freedom” in the UK. She insisted the real concern around freedom of expression in visual art was not offence, but a very real need for “sophisticated thought” in a complicated society. An honest and fair look at each individual context was necessary; occasionally “internal censorship is not a bad thing at all”, she added.

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