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Subversion and lies: the enemies of open art

“Censorship and Arts”

Originally published in Art of England, Issue 28, 2011. Reproduced with permission.

Who would have thought the real cyber-war would be fought over freedom of speech as we see the WikiLeaks saga unfold. This got me to thinking about censorship more generally and how the arts have fared in this respect especially during times of conflict, since the UK is at war and terrorism looms large in public awareness.

Censorship of art is alive and well around the world. Whether it is draping a nude statue, removing pictures of children from an exhibition, or advising photographers what they can and cannot photograph, the forces of censorship are active and vigilant. They are found, as expected in repressive regimes, but also in the hyperactive sensibilities of enforcement authorities in progressive democracies, such as the UK.

Self-censorship is just as dangerous as the type that marches through the door to snatch a piece of art work that ‘offends’. Being ‘on message’ is something familiar to many people who go to work every day, in areas subject to public scrutiny or interest. A wrong turn of phrase can mean you are not supportive of ‘the plan’. So, we suppress our views and engage in self-censorship lest we be labelled: ‘not one of us’, ‘not a team player’.

Many discussions about WikiLeaks are taking place in forums that are private, owned by companies, and not strictly public places — there is no digital Speakers’ Corner. Violating the opaque terms of use of various commercial social-networking sites can lead to your account being closed. Indeed, the Facebook group on WikiLeaks has been discussing whether discussing WikiLeaks violates the terms of use. This is tantamount to the privatisation of censorship, over which the individual has little recourse.

Siberia not just a place on the map.

But it is becoming clear that the digital internet world is seen as different from the ‘real world’, and that forms of expression that would be tolerated in newspapers, broadcast media, and the Art of England magazine, may be seen as subversive, intolerable, and worthy of censorship when available through the internet. It is easy to raid a bricks-and-mortar gallery; an online gallery is something quite different. And what is becoming clearer every day is that it is one thing to be a website publishing secret government documents, it is quite another to be a newspaper doing the same thing.

Art has always attracted the attention of officials for its potential for subversion and coded communication. Repressive regimes have suppressed freedom of artistic expression. The Soviet Union had its official state art, produced by state artists, to convey socio-political messages, and famously feared abstract expressionism. Inserting codes into paintings and photographs has been considered by some as an excellent form of espionage. A benign painting of a landscape could conceal in plain view essential relationships between buildings, or the lay of the land.

During World War 1, the Defence of the Realm Act (UK) censored the content of artists works, such as art depicting the horrors of war — something that speaks to us today. Marine painters were virtually put out of business at the time as the Admiralty decreed that even the image of a ship might aid the enemy. Artists were seen with considerable suspicion, and people looked everywhere for evidence that the local artist was a spy.

During World War 1, Swiss customs officials detained the composer Igor Stravinsky believing the portrait of himself by Picasso was a plan: “It is not a portrait but a plan”, they said. “Yes,” said Stravinsky, “it is a plan of my face, but of nothing else.”

Reference: James Fox, Traitor Painters: artists and espionage in the First World War, 1914-18, The British Art Journal, vol 9, number 3, March 2009.