November Salon Provocation Paper

Victorious Endeavours ~ A Salon Provocation Paper

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Sue Williams Visual Artist ~ Censorship in 21st Century Wales

Sue Williams describes herself as a feminist artist; her work is challenging and deliberately provocative. Sue is an artist whose work has a message; not one that every gallery curator or exhibition organiser wants to hear. In a democracy we value free speech; at least I do. I would like to be able to decide for myself whether to go to an exhibition or not but this presupposes that someone hasn’t already decided that for me.

But of course every exhibition will have been curated i.e. someone has selected specific pieces of work to be displayed in the gallery or space. Each curator will have a set of criteria used to decide what to include and what to exclude. Good exhibitions are coherent; the pieces of work fit together and tell a story or convey a theme. Where there is an artistic or aesthetic rationale or justification that’s fine. Where the gallery guidelines discourage challenging work that might ‘offend’ the audience it’s more questionable.

Public bodies tend to be more cautious, more risk averse and perhaps paternalist. Whose sensibilities need protecting, are the viewing public too delicate or open to suggestion that they cannot be allowed to make the judgement for themselves? Good art challenges and can make you think. Art is a prism through which we understand the complexities of the world we live in. Elements of society are unpleasant, difficult and at times uncomfortable but does this mean we should pretend they don’t exist?

Censorship is something I am inherently opposed to; certainly there may need to be information provided about images that parents may not want their children to be exposed to. Museums often have signs at the entrance to certain gallery spaces warning viewers of the contents. Sue Williams Artes Mundi exhibition in the National Museum was one such exhibition. Some of the work was sexually explicit but it was within a context of a body of work; it did not offend me but it did apparently alarm some of the museum invigilators who insisted that the public should be warned!

Some artists seek to shock deliberately; it’s an easy way to generate publicity but if it’s just sensationalist posturing not backed up by an artistic rationale then this is just lazy in my view. Ultimately it is often down to personal choice or preference. It’s not dissimilar to the pornography versus erotica debate at least in the grey area in the middle. The extremes are easier to spot.

Where public money is invested the question of censorship is more difficult. When I was at the Arts Council I received correspondence complaining about an Australian theatre show called ‘The Puppetry of the Penis’. The show toured to some Arts Council funded venues and certain Church organisations objected to public money being used to support the work. I confess it didn’t appeal to me and I never saw it but I did defend the right to programme the work. The reality was the title was far more explicit than the show itself (or so I was assured)!

So where do you sit? Should the state be allowed to censor and control what the public see? Do we really know whether things are being censored or not? Is it the basis on which the censoring is done that matters? It is not always obvious why something’s are programmed after the 9 pm watershed and now with the watch again facility you can watch programmes at any time. Is censorship tenable in 2011? Or should it be approached in a more adult mature manner?

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