Freedom of expression is considered to be a basic human right and is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a related UN document (1966), states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. It, however, adds: “The exercise of the[se] rights … carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary: (a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others; (b) For the protection of national security or of public order …, or of public health or morals”. This qualifier is a major sticking point, as its provisions are subject to significant differences in interpretation, across different social and cultural contexts and historically.
Censorship is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “the suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security”. In art, censorship can take the form of the removal, confiscation, alteration, or destruction of work that is on display or in performance. Censorship is usually carried out by authorities, based on legal provisions. Censorship can also take softer, more indirect forms, such as the threat of withdrawal of funding support or sponsorship, which is an issue that cultural institutions have had to contend with. While the official definitions focus on the acts of “controlling bodies”, public opinion can also be a powerful source of, and trigger for, censorship. Public opinion is particularly difficult to deal with in the arts, as it involves balancing the rights of artists and their audiences. In recent years, public opinion has become significantly more censorious, and this is a global phenomenon, not limited to Jamaica. Social media has created an environment that facilitates the expression and wide circulation of opinion, which is, as such, positive. A situation has, however, evolved in which actual and perceived “infractions” of various social and cultural codes can be called out swiftly and “punished” harshly and very publicly – the so-called “cancel culture”. This sometimes amounts to veritable viral mob attacks in which participants join based on uncritical, kneejerk responses, rather than any independent, thoughtful critical reflection. In this context, it has become very difficult to have open and inclusive discussions about issues that involve gender, sexuality and race.
The risk of being “cancelled” or “de-platformed” has, predictably, caused many public and not-so-public figures to become more risk-averse as there are often severe consequences for themselves and the organizations and issues they represent. While there are, of course, issues that warrant vigorous public criticism, the general effect is a narrowing of freedom of speech, with a growing intolerance for differences and nuances of opinion, beyond certain rigid, prescribed positions, and that is not healthy or desirable, intellectually and culturally. This rapidly changing context inevitably constrains the work of artists, cultural institutions and, for that matter, criticism.
Jamaica prides itself in having a robust tradition of freedom of speech which is primarily defined in terms of press freedom, but what about the inter-related concept of freedom of expression in the visual arts? Although there are laws, such as the Obscene Publications Act that could put a serious damper on the freedom of artistic expression, depending on how broadly or narrowly “obscenity” is defined by a particular judge, they are only rarely applied, at least with regard to art. Public opinion is another matter, however, and Jamaica has a long history of contentious public reactions to public art and monuments. Some of these controversies have led to the removal of statues such as the Bogle monument in Morant Bay and the original Bob Marley statue by Christopher Gonzalez – these are de facto instances of censorship although they are not necessarily seen that way by those engaged in it.
In almost all of these statue controversies, concerns about nudity and perceived references to sexuality have played a major role and, although most of the references are in fact quite modest, it is clear that this is deemed incompatible with official collective representations. Typically, the same works exhibited in a gallery or museum would not cause any controversy at all. There is, in contrast, only occasional public outrage about popular culture representations with often far more provocative and problematic content, such as what can be seen on some of the ubiquitous dancehall signs and posters, and the decorations on certain bars and even public transport vehicles. Different standards obviously apply in different contexts and circumstances, and double standards in some.
There have, however, been a few instances here in Jamaica where art works that were exhibited in more specialized art contexts have attracted public outrage, and media attention, usually because of concerns about the actual or perceived content (controversies about form are far less common). I had to deal with some of those while I served as the executive director of the National Gallery of Jamaica, and it was a singularly unpleasant experience, which was furthermore fanned by political and personal agendas that had nothing to do with the ostensible issues at hand. It made me realize that, once in the public domain, such controversies are often a no-win situation for artists, arts administrators and cultural institutions, alike, as there are widespread perceptions that the art world is libertarian and socially irresponsible, and out of step with the dominant mores. It also taught me that a lot of the freedom which is taken for granted in the visual arts is in fact tenuous and fragile, and needs to be handled with care, lest it be lost. I was forced to think more carefully about my own position about freedom of expression in the arts, and what I am prepared to stand for and defend as an art historian, curator, and arts administrator.
As a professional in these fields, I support freedom of expression as a matter of principle, but I also have to consider the rights of the public as well as the potential legal and other consequences for the organizations I represent. It is an increasingly difficult balancing act. I have learned, the hard way, that I should support only what I think is worth supporting, in terms of provocative art that is sufficiently compelling, artistically and in terms of the significance of the issues it seeks to represent. I will not support art that is deliberately and obviously racist or sexist or seeks to do harm to any individuals or groups, or art that seeks to capitalize on sensationalist controversy without having any real artistic merit or integrity, as is unfortunately quite common these days. Controversy sells, after all.
While I recognize that provocative art can be very useful, in terms of how it allows for discussion on difficult but important cultural and social matters, I have also come recognize that it should not be forced onto an unsuspecting or unwilling public, which is why public art can be so contentious. People need to have choices in terms of what they are exposed to. There is a time and a place for artistic provocations, which are often better handled in specialist contexts, such as a museum, that are better equipped to contextualize and communicate such issues. But, perhaps most importantly, I take the position that once I have opted to include a work of art in an exhibition or publication, or otherwise support it, I must be prepared to stand with the artist and to defend it, even when the controversy gets ugly and whatever the consequence.
Next week we will take a closer look at some of the art controversies, and instances of censorship, that have occurred in the Jamaican context.
Dr Veerle Poupeye is an art historian specialized in art from the Caribbean. She works as an independent curator, writer, researcher, and cultural consultant. Her personal blog can be found at veerlepoupeye.com.