Censorship is not just skin deep

An Oslo conference unsettles Chris Gruppetta’s notions of what constitutes censorship.

‘Let him who has not’ by Nadia Jelassi, showing sculptures of veiled women emerging from piles of stones that bring to mind a stoning, left her facing a five-year prison sentence in Tunisia.
‘Let him who has not’ by Nadia Jelassi, showing sculptures of veiled women emerging from piles of stones that bring to mind a stoning, left her facing a five-year prison sentence in Tunisia.

Any conference worth its salt should, arguably, raise more questions than it answers. If so, then 'All that is banned is desired', the first world conference on censorship of artistic freedom of expression held last week in Oslo, Norway, certainly achieved its objectives. Two days of full-on sessions with artistic freedom of expression paladins from all over the world, had us yes condemning the atrocities being inflicted upon artists in more repressive regimes, but also questioning a number of cosy assumptions and convenient labels we sometimes like to make.

As the conference went on, I couldn't help question what, really - beyond the clichés and received definitions - is the meaning of censorship. Censorship is bad, there is no arguing with that. But where does censorship end, and curatorial independence start? Are we, sometimes, too hasty to stick the "I've been censored" label onto a rejection of an artistic project, conveniently brushing aside an assessment of quality inherent in the rejection?

For Marie Korpe, Executive Director of Freemuse - one of the conference's organising associations - "censorship is characterised by the contradictory fact that by imposing limits it produces reactions to those limits, by curtailing speech today censors set the conditions against which many more will speak tomorrow."

So let's get this out of the way - censorship is bad, both inherently and also because it invariably backfires on the censors. The Maltese theatre classification board attempted to block Unifaun's production of Stitching? Fast-forward a couple of years and the board itself has been disbanded, the entire stage censorship setup replaced with a liberal self-classification system.

Hearing artists talk about being imprisoned, tortured, threatened, humiliated, exiled, drives home both the horror of censorship and the courage of what these artists were ready to endure, in situations of hardcore artistic censorship. Burmese comedian and film director Zarganar spoke of having been buried to his neck in sand and threatened with being run over by a tank, of being forced to perform his comedy routines while hanging upside down in a jail cell. Filmmaker George Gittoes described how his actors in Peshawar and Jalalabad are routinely threatened and tortured because they work in the "immoral" industry of movies. Norwegian publisher William Nygaard was shot and left for dead outside his home in Oslo in 1993 for having published the Norwegian translation of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses.

There is no possible justification for artistic censorship, not when it takes the above extreme physical forms, not when it's more nuanced and mutates - in more democratic countries - into talk of "appropriateness" and "community standards". Svetlana Mintcheva, Director of the US National Coalition Against Censorship, spoke of the risk that First Amendment protection is being extended into a right "not to be offended", hence justifying censorship of "offensive" expression.

I have always been fervently anti-censorship, in my publishing day job, through my involvement in a Ministry of Culture working group to propose legal amendments to end literary censorship, and through my work at the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts - MCCA's delegation to this conference being part of its incessant commitment against censorship and its efforts to remain up-to-date with international developments in the field.

And yet - and yet - as politically incorrect as it may sound to say so, looking beyond the undoubted cases of serious censorship and intimidation, I couldn't help stifle the nagging suspicion that a few of the "victims" were, at least in part, victims of lack of quality, that they had not been so much censored as told their work wasn't good enough or acceptable for a particular project. Which is where curatorial independence comes into play.

I am a firm believer in the imperativeness of curation in any artistic endeavour - the corollary of which being that a curator, to be effective, needs to have a wide discretion on what works to accept and what to cast aside. Accusations of censorship by the "rejected" artists are facile and ego-assuaging, and in the long term actually harm the cause against censorship. Of course no two cases are identical, and there will always be cases where censorship has come into play. But the point is that not all rejections are tantamount to censorship - and that thus defining censorship becomes urgent and relevant.


Nadia Plesner was taken to court by Luis Vuitton for using an image of their handbag.

One of the speakers at the conference was visual artist Nadia Plesner, well-known in artistic circles for her long and media-espoused battle against Louis Vuitton following her inclusion of a Louis Vuitton handbag on the arm of a starving Sudanese child in an image denunciating warped media priorities in Darfur. She was sued by Louis Vuitton  for unlawful use of their brand, a case the company ultimately lost. But in this case – misguided as the legal action against Plesner was – is it censorship, or is it really an intellectual property battle?

Plesner was playing the censorship card, which got her media spotlight and fame, and her work exhibited in respected galleries, but one could sense that Louis Vuitton were concerned not so much with gagging the artist from expressing her views on the dramatic situation in Darfur, but with her using their brand to do so.

There are laws and case-law on the artistic use of iconic brands, of course, and in fact Plesner won, however I have some difficulty in classifying this as censorship. Overzealous and big-business overprotection of intellectual property, yes... but censorship?

Likewise, film director Fredrik Gertten spoke about being sued by multinational fruit company Dole for making a documentary (Bananas!*) allegedly libelling Dole when he claimed that pesticides they use in banana-picking cause infertility among their plantation workers.

In both these cases, what is being termed censorship is to a certain extent about some people wanting to make assertions in their art without taking responsibility for their actions, wishing for their status of artist to grant them ipso facto a blanket immunity from the legal consequences applicable to other human beings.

Whereas being an artist is also about standing up for one's beliefs, enshrined in the maxim "publish and be damned". Blogger Jacques René Zammit (akkuza.com) had put it succinctly earlier this year: "Art should be pushing the boundaries, provoking thought and ideas not waiting for the nihil obstat from society."

British Sikh award-winning playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti - whose play exploring sexual abuse in the British Sikh community was closed by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre following community protests - calls herself the "itch in the community", saying she made the choice when writing her plays to be the itch, as against self-censoring her work for fear of retaliation in the form of loss of funding. Freedom of expression vs caution in the face of creature comfort disruption. The choice was hers, and she made it.

Now there's a fight against censorship worth celebrating.

Chris Gruppetta is a Council member of the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts.