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Everyone in Our Society is in Our Culture: Censoring artwork and protecting the public / 4 February 2013

photo of a series of three windows with a blind in front of them

Wakefield Artwalk November 2010

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‘I gotta divide my emotions into wrong and right’ says Ani d’Franco in her song 'Shameless'.

Do we have a quiet instinct to protect ‘the public’ from disabled artists? I’m not Andrea Dworkin but censorship crossed my desk today, and these are my thoughts from inside the Art House.

We run an evening affordable art fair, stalls galore with Xmas presents plus mulled wine, twinkly lights and mince pies. It’s a lot of fun. Artists tell us it’s a great opportunity for them to develop new skills and build new networks.

During that evening studio holders also open their studios to the public. This year we had an interesting conversation that got us mulling about how we are can accidently censor other people’s lives.

One of our artists asked for advice on making the most of opening her studio. Due to the festive event some wondered if her work would be inappropriate. The work deals directly with her experience of her mental ill-health. We also had an artist approach us after the event to say they thought it was inappropriate that she had opened her studio when ‘the public’ was in the building- albeit they didn’t mention that they were personally offended. Complaints can feel like failure to both the staff and the artist, and that’s hard for us all. But they can be the beginning of a conversation.
 
It’s not the first time- once an artist wanted to show a painting in our foyer, exploring her relationship with her sexuality. Some wondered if this was inappropriate. At that artists’ talk the audience were intrigued, reflecting on their own reactions- no offence recorded. They understood the art work as exploring ideas and experiences that they had never considered before. It is also the exhibition that has sold the most work, which could be seen as validation from a wider audience. In truth we had more complaints about the scary music from a film piece- because it disrupted people working. It seems ‘the public’ doesn’t mind being asked to think.

None of our complainants said they were complaining on their own behalf, but in case ‘the public’ are offended. Have we quietly bought into the idea that we should ‘protect the public’ from their own emotions? I do wonder how they drew this conclusion. The complainants must have had an emotional reaction to the work it in this way. There is no objective line here, only subjective judgements by individuals. We’ve all had that experience of crying at the banal TV programme or laughing at something inappropriate- so I’m afraid we can’t predict which work will divide your reactions into wrong or right.

I also wasn’t clear what the complainants thought may happen to ‘the public’. What impact could be so strong that we would remove work about a person’s life- you could say- erase their life from our cultural experience, our perception of what society is? Someone once told me that they found nice, clean disabilities easier to cope with and this appears similar- anything with fluids or emotions was too unpredictable: don’t work with children, dogs or people with messy disabilities….?

As an organisation dedicated to equality in the visual arts we shouldn’t ever be saying we will protect people from art work and therefore excluding the lives of others. But we should also be prepared to assist people in thinking through work that creates difficult emotions, if they would like- we should respond to the complaint as an opening for discussion. We should be saying “ I know this is new/hard/different for you but artists come through many experiences, and those are experiences of our society. And everyone in our society is in our culture.

Anne Cunningham