Northern Light

The Art of Self Censorship

Once upon a time art was meant to provoke and challenge authority and widely held opinions, be they of religious, political or cultural nature, but that obviously isn’t the case anymore. Grayson Perry, known for his decorated pots featuring sex and violence, admits in an interview with the London Times, that he out of fear is avoiding artistic comment on Islam.

”I’ve censored myself,” Perry said at a discussion on art and politics organised by the Art Fund of the UK according to the Times.

”The reason I haven’t gone all out attacking Islamism in my art is because I feel real fear that someone will slit my throat.”

I think Grayson Perry needs to be commended for his honesty. He admits that he is afraid. He isn’t trying to avoid the issue by saying that he respects people’s religious feelings, and therefore he will not ridicule Islam.

Perry once depicted a teddy bear being born from a penis as the Virgin Mary, so it would be difficult for him anyway to say that he refrains from taking on religion as such.

”I am interested in religion and I’ve made a lot of pieces about it. With other targets you’ve got a better idea of who they are but Islamism is very amorphous. You don’t know what the threshold is. Even what seems an innocuous image might trigger off a really violent reaction so I just play safe all the time.”

I feel your pain.

Perry points to the killing of the Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh after he made a movie attacking Islam for condoning violence against women as a chilling example of what can happen to an artist who insults Islam. He also said that he had been very scared to see the violent reactions across the Islamic world to the Mohammed cartoons published by me in Jyllands-Posten, and the protests against Salman Rushdie’s knighthood this year.

Reactions like the one by Perry was exactly what prompted me to commission the Danish cartoons, and that is the reason why we need more cartoons of the Prophet, not less. In fact, Tate Gallery censoring avantgardist artist John Latham’s installation God Is Great was one of the examples I used defending publication of the cartoons. I think Perry makes the distinction between good manners, editing and self censorhip very clear. He says, that he would really have liked to target Islamism, but he is afraid of doing so. That is self censorship, while good manners imply that one refrains from doing something in order not to offend. If one holds that position, though, I think one has be consistent and needs to avoid ridiculing or challenging any religion, and not just Islam.

Says Tim Marlow, director of exhibitions at White Cube, a London gallery:

”It’s something that’s there but very few people have explicitly admitted. Institutions, museums and galleries are probably doing most of the censorship. I would be lying if I said of course we would show something like the Danish cartoons. I think there are genuine reasons for concern. Fundamentalism is a really complex issue and one of the things artists can do is to help us through that complexity. Whether or not it’s their responsibility to do that I’m not sure though.”

I think it’s very simple. Anyone who crosses the line of the rules of public debate and resorts to violence is out, and should be treated accordingly. The only limit a society needs to impose on speech involves incitement to violence.