This was the most important, substantial, timely and honest arts conference I have been to in years. Organised by Index on Censorship, in association with Free Word and the Southbank Centre – and expertly hosted by Jude Kelly – Taking the Offensive: Defending Artistic Freedom of Expression in the UK, brought up issues of censorship and self censorship, discussing them intelligently and in their complexity.

It explored how social factors such as concerns about giving offence and public order have led to a growing conservative climate. This, colliding with very current external factors such as reduced public funding and the drive towards private sector sponsorship, has made and may continue to make organisations, funders, artists and stakeholders increasingly risk averse in terms of cultural production.

Speakers and an informed, engaged audience all agreed that, as Nicholas Serota put it in his keynote speech, “it is vital that freedom of expression is maintained not just for our artists, past and present, but for discussion about it and their work as well”.

Serota talked candidly about four decisions he and Tate had made recently in this area: the decision to speak out in defence of Ai Weiwei; the removal of Spiritual America (photo of a naked 10 year old Brooke Shields) by Richard Prince from the exhibition Poplife; the staging of Mark Wallinger’s State Britain exhibition recreating Brian Haw’s camp in Parliament Square, which was perceived as Tate being openly critical of the Government; and the decision not to show John Latham’s God is Great in the weeks immediately after the July 7 London bombings in 2005.

Serota’s view was that decision-making has to stand up to scrutiny, and expert advice is crucial not just from curators and lawyers, but from the police as well. This was immediately challenged by lawyer Anthony Julius, who articulated the process whereby it is often the worst case scenario that dictates a decision. He disagreed with the Tate decision on Latham’s work, believing that it was anxiety about the “what if” scenario – in particular the possibility that the work might upset Muslims – rather than evidence that it would actually happen, that led to the removal of the work.

Pressure and harassment

There were many stories from members of the audience – visual artists, film-makers and writers – whose work had been put under pressure, and even pulled, for reasons other than aesthetic quality. Writer and film director Penny Woolcock described the police harassment she received when working with young men in inner-city gangs. The police put intense pressure on her to hand over her rushes, in the hope of securing evidence to convict participants in crimes, and stopped cinemas showing the film.

Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti told of how her play Behzti was pulled from the Birmingham Rep Theatre in 2004 after protests by the local Sikh community, and how very recently she was asked by the BBC to change lines in a script, due to fear of giving offence to Muslims. The role of vocal minority groups with platforms in fanning “community outrage”, as well as what Serota called “press harassment” was discussed in terms of putting organisations under disproportionate and complex pressure to behave in particular ways.

Artists who had experienced their work being compromised had felt vulnerable and unprotected, and it was suggested that “visual artists would benefit from a properly constituted organisation that can represent them and go to law on their behalf if necessary.” There was an overall motif of imbalance of power – between artists and their commissioning organisations, and between organisations and their funders and other stakeholders.

“All philanthropy is coercive”

Regarding the potential for sponsors to influence artistic programming, Sally Tallant, Director of Liverpool Biennial, felt that their model – of seeking sponsors for specific projects only after the programme is settled – was part of a system of checks and balances. “All philanthropy is coercive,” she said, citing Adrian Ellis’ paper, Coercive Philanthropy. “We don’t have a building; what we have is our credibility in the programme.” Another clear response to this possibility was articulated by John Kampfner, Chair of Turner Contemporary, and repeated by others: “Stick to your mission and charitable purpose, and have confidence in the decisions of your director.”

Strong artistic leadership was seen to be paramount, with the Board’s role to have policy and procedure ready in advance, and to stand firm when necessary. A conclusion was reached that more sophisticated training for professional fundraisers was needed in order to anticipate and avoid these types of issues before they happened. But again, as Jude Kelly pointed out, the reality is often more complex: “Edicts from on high are not necessary; it functions more subtly, in an ‘everyone knows BP won’t like this’ kind of way.”

Importantly, not only were these and related issues and fears aired, but potential – if partial – solutions were discussed for their usefulness and merit. An expert panel was asked, ‘Should there be a freedom of expression policy for the arts?’ The overall view was no, more bureaucracy was neither effective nor desirable.

Responsibility undermines free speech

“They [policies] make us feel more policed,” said Erica Whyman, Deputy Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. “This country is moving towards a situation where art needs to please. We’re nervous of making work that people don’t like. We should be able to have the space to do that.”

Moira Sinclair, Executive Director, Arts Council England, agreed: “We continue to fund difficult as well as pleasing work.” However, she also spoke about “looking at artists’ responsibilities as well as rights. The true role of artists is to juggle how their work will sit in the world.” This was immediately shot down by Kenan Malik, writer, lecturer and broadcaster, who pointed out that (the notion of) “responsibility is used by everyone to undermine free speech”.

Although “The Culture Help Phoneline doesn’t exist” (another bon mot from Jude Kelly), Index on Censorship is currently working with law firm Bindmans LLP to produce guidance to artists and arts organisations on various relevant aspects of the law, with advice about how they can protect themselves and what they can do if they find themselves in a censorship-type situation.

The conference was funded by Arts Council England, but not led by them. “Index on Censorship are becoming the new voice defending the arts,” said artist Bob and Roberta Smith, “because no other organisation is, and artists are no good at it. They’re saying that within a democracy, art is fundamental. It’s about tolerance and listening to other points of view. When we self-censor we are damaging democracy, not strengthening it.”

He added: “Being offended is not the end of the world.” Indeed.

Taking the Offensive: Defending artistic Freedom of Expression in the UK took place on 29 January 2013 at the Southbank Centre, London.

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