New landscapes of censorship force a higher level of self-awareness

Debates about representation, cancel culture and access have changed the way we understand the concept of censorship in arts and culture. It calls for a more sophisticated understanding of the many ways that artists and cultural creators meet censorship, requiring cultural institutions and agents to grow in self-awareness and work within spaces of hyper complexity.

Censorship covers a broad spectrum of violations

In 2021, a record-high number of artistic freedom violations were documented, with cases involving censorship legal action, harassment and even murder (, The State of Artistic Freedom 2022). This shows how in times of military conflict, political instability, and with democracy under pressure, arts and culture is being responded to as a threat when seeking to lead open and free dialogue. Signals gathered for the Living Catalogue show some of the many examples of censorship and cancellation: from the explicit and autocratic censorship to different modes of self-imposed censorship where artistic work is being adjusted or amended in order not to upset funders, commissioners, or the wider audience. Whilst in some cases artistic work can pose questions of life or death, in others, the reason for disqualification can be more symbolic, motivated by a will to signal a clear message to the media, political community or wider audience. For example, in spring 2022 the Russian invasion of Ukraine prompted a fast removal of Russian artists from exhibitions and programs with little time to consider the full complexity of the situation.

The discussions are complex

The collected signals illustrate the difficulties of analysing and documenting the full extent and impact of restraints on artistic freedom. Where in international reports the focus is often solely on concrete cases of censorship and cancellation of art works, in reality, artists often meet many indirect and subtle obstacles before a work is even finalised or exhibited. As Sara Whyatt, researcher and advocate on freedom of artistic expression and humans rights puts it in her contribution to IFACCA’s report on Artistic Freedom*: “When I am told that there are few artists in prison and, by implication, that there is little to be concerned about, I reply that there are several hurdles that need to be jumped before an artist’s work gets noticed by the authorities or angry mobs.”

Debates on censorship and cancel culture are also often centred around the question of how absolute the right to artistic freedom should be. The complexity of this area becomes clear in cases where artistic freedom is encountered by other cultural rights, that are activated to fight against cultural exclusion, discrimination and marginalisation. A recent example comes from Germany where the major exhibition, Documenta Fifteen, was called to cancel a screening of films amid ongoing accusations of anti-Semitism by its own advisory committee.

The examples above underline how safeguarding artistic freedom requires that its value is understood in a wider societal context, as a right that matters to the whole society and not only to a narrow group. According to cultural manager and activist Basma El Husseiny the root cause for censorship or other attacks on artistic freedom is a social environment that does not value freedom of expression: “It is impossible to defend and protect freedom of expression in a social environment that is oblivious, or even hostile to it. In this kind of environment, self-censorship easily becomes the norm and it also becomes easier to imprison artists or legalise censorship.”

Institutions and individuals need to look critically at themselves

Taking representation seriously is the new normal that any institution must be able to live up to. However, signals and cases show that this strategy falls short in a global and complex world, where identity, politics, gender and ethnicity are not static categories we can “check-list” our way around.
When looking to a brighter future for artistic freedoms and expression, embracing complexity is key. Influential institutions and agents of the field need to be able to enter into dialogues and self-reflection that critically examines biases and privileges. As the broader public, we all hold a responsibility to allow institutions and agents to not have ready-made political answers to complex issues of censorship, but instead open up the space of institutional vulnerability and ambiguity that will allow for real change.

*Discussion Paper: 9th World Summit on Arts & Culture 2023 by International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies (IFACCA).

Based on 30 signals