In the light of recent events regarding art and creativity touching into sensible aspects of society, I have decided to put down a few thoughts about freedom of expression impacting artworks worldwide.
Many people still think freedom of expression should not go all the way to the limits or beyond, but freedom of expression is, in fact, about going beyond boundaries, challenging ideas and scrutinizing rhetorics as a way to pursue an open-minded and progressive society - traits that led humanity to where it is now: the 21st century boom of technology and innovation... or the information age as it is known.
The right to freedom of expression is a basic and fundamental human right as part of the international law, the Magna Carta pushed worldwide by western societies that were founded on classical liberal principles of liberty. Freedom of expression or freedom of speech is a necessary condition for achieving many other fundamental human rights. The right to artistic freedom of expression relates more specifically to creative forms of expression and the production of various forms of art.
We have seen in the recent years that in the name of security for "greater good", many liberties have been eroded, trampling down individual rights and freedoms.
One of the United States Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, as being aware of the danger of liberty loss, once said:
And he was quite right - we already face some of these effects right now as increased security at the expense of liberty won't bring more security nor, let alone, liberty..., but it helps the freedom opponents to push their censorship more and more to win the battle.
Another surging danger for today's societies are the promotion of political correctness which puts equality above freedom thus censoring all forms of expression in an attempt to equalize and stifle our dynamic characters and stigmatizing those who go for the extra mile.
The Nobel prize winner in economics and social behaviour caught that very well in a few remarkable words:
And unfortunately, artists all over the world are trapped between political, religious, cultural and economic interests. History shows that time and time again, members of the creative community have been on the frontlines defending the right to speak freely. Members of the creative community, have stood up to promote freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. The result is a vibrant and robust marketplace of ideas. The free flow of information and ideas is essential to any healthy and progressive society.
The aspect of artistic freedom is crucial to any free nation. It is not ‘just’ about the artists’ rights to express themselves freely, it is also a question of the rights of citizens to access artistic expressions and take part in cultural life — and thus one of the key issues for democracy.
Whether you're an architect, a painter, a writer, an interior designer or just a CGI artist like me, you don't want to sacrifice your freedom if you exposed a controversial shape, a nude, or an idea just because others believe their feelings were hurt. We cannot walk in fear of hurting others' feelings if we, as a society, are looking for progress. This is a free world and if they don't like something, maybe they should look away as nobody is forcing those artistic creations or ideas upon them.
Here are a few examples of speech that are most often censored:
- Sexual speech. Sex in art and entertainment is the most frequent target of censorship crusades. Many examples come to mind. A painting of the classical statue of Venus de Milo was removed from a store because the managers of the shopping mall found its semi-nudity "too shocking." Hundreds of works of literature, from Maya Angelou's, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath", has been banned from public schools based on their sexual content. A museum director was charged with a crime for including sexually explicit photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe in an art exhibit. The democratic law is, on the whole, the most speech-protective in the world -- but sexual expression is treated as a second-class citizen. No causal link between exposure to sexually explicit material and anti-social or violent behaviour has ever been scientifically established, in spite of many efforts to do so.
- Media violence(video games). Today's calls for censorship are not motivated solely by morality and taste, but also by the widespread belief that exposure to images of violence causes people to act in destructive ways. Pro-censorship forces, including many politicians, often cite a multitude of "scientific studies" that allegedly prove fictional violence leads to real-life violence. There is, in fact, virtually no evidence that fictional violence causes otherwise stable people to become violent. And if we suppressed material based on the actions of unstable people, no work of fiction or art would be safe from censorship. The only clear assertion that can be made is that the relationship between art and human behaviour is a very complex one. Violent and sexually explicit art and entertainment have been a staple of human cultures throughout the history since ever. Many human behavioralists believe that these themes have a useful and constructive societal role, serving as a tampon for individual aggression.
- Press speech. Of all the threats to our freedom of speech rights, the prior restraint of news publishing and broadcasting is the most serious. This form of censorship restrains expression before it actually takes place, rather than imposing civil penalties on it afterwards. It is so disfavored that Courts rarely find prior restraints constitutional. The press does not simply publish information about trials, but guards against the miscarriage of justice by subjecting the police, prosecutors, and judicial processes to extensive public scrutiny and criticism.
The protection of artistic expression is just as important for the development of democracy as the protection of media workers. It is frequently artists who, through music, visual arts or films, put the ‘needle in the eye’ and strike a chord with millions of people, some of them unable to read and with no access to self-expression.
Programme Manager Ole Reitov, who has worked as a consultant to the UN office during the preparation of a thorough report regarding this issue at the UN Human Rights Council in 2013, said: "Too many artists have been killed, attacked or imprisoned in recent years. Censorship legislation in many countries is neither respecting international conventions nor providing any options for artists and cultural producers to appeal.” Free expression is central to all other freedoms. As the change in our communities becomes more constant and as ideas, technologies and people are moving more rapidly within and among countries, our work promotes the right of all people to connect more deeply with others and find meaningful ways to participate. We should do this by supporting the creative and intellectual community more often.
Provocative and controversial art and "in your face" entertainment put our commitment to free speech to the test. Why should we oppose censorship when scenes of murder and mayhem dominate the TV screen, when works of art can be seen as a direct insult to peoples' religious beliefs, and when much sexually explicit material can be seen as degrading to women? Why not let the majority's morality and taste dictate what others can look at or listen to? The answer is simple and timeless: a free society is based on the principle that each and every individual has the right to decide what art or entertainment he or she wants -- or does not want -- to receive or create. Once you allow the government to censor someone else, you cede to it the power to censor you, or something you like... because censorship is like poison gas: a powerful weapon that can harm you when the wind shifts. Freedom of expression for ourselves requires freedom of expression for others. It is at the very heart of our democracy.
All persons enjoy the right to freedom of artistic expression and creativity, which includes the right to freely experience and contribute to artistic expressions and creations, through individual or joint practice, to have access to and enjoy the arts, and to disseminate their expressions and creations. The effects of art censorship or unjustified restrictions of the right to freedom of artistic expression and creativity are devastating. They generate important cultural, social and economic losses, deprive artists of their means of expression and livelihood, create an unsafe environment for all those engaged in the arts and their audiences, sterilize debates on human, social and political issues, hamper the functioning of democracy and most often also impede debates on the legitimacy of censorship itself.
In many cases, censorship is counterproductive in that it gives wider publicity to controversial artworks. However, the fear censorship generates in artists and art institutions often leads to self-censorship, which stifles art expression and impoverishes the public sphere. Artistic creativity demands an environment free from fear and insecurity.
A government that restricts freedom of speech also tends to have a chilling effect on their people's ability to offer fresh solutions to the country's problems. It also prevents people from exploring new ideas and expressing themselves in creative ways by means of research and the arts.
Here are a few recommendations that could help expressive creativity flourish in a prosper society:
- Artists and all those engaged in artistic activities should only be subject to general laws that apply to all people. Such laws shall be formulated with sufficient precision and in accordance with international human rights standards.
- States should abolish prior-censorship bodies or systems where they exist and use subsequent imposition of liability only when necessary by a court of law. Prior censorship should be a highly exceptional measure, undertaken only to prevent the imminent threat of grave irreparable harm to human life or property - like in the case of hate speech.
- States should abide by their obligation to protect artists as well as all citizens participating in artistic activities or dissemination of artistic expressions and creations from violence by third parties. States should de-escalate tensions when these arise, maintain the rule of law and protect freedoms of all kind, including artistic freedoms. The police should not charge artists and cultural institutions for the costs of their protection; The police should support artists who are threatened through legal support, in particular.
As an individual born under communism, I believe I'm pretty much aware of dangers coming from limiting freedom for the sake of the so-called higher moral purposes, like security or equality disguised in political correctness. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, but there is no higher moral purpose than freedom.
P.S.: this blog post was color censored.