Artsfreedom Newsletter no. 4: The land of the free?

26 June 2014

International news and info about artistic freedom of expression

JUNE 2014


The land of the free?

Several members of the artsfex network committed to defending and advocating the right to artistic freedom of expression recently expressed concern about the New York Metropolitan Opera’s cancellation of more than 2,000 high-definition live screenings of John Adams’ opera ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ in 65 countries.

The opera has been subject to controversy many times with attacks coming from both Jewish and Palestinian organisations, each side claiming that The Death of Klinghoffer was biased against them.

It is neither surprising nor unusual that pressure groups make attempts to stop artistic productions of being staged or distributed. What is alarming is the fact an established and respected institution such as the Met “gives in” and decides on a compromise decision to go ahead with the production, but cancel live screenings. The US National Coalition Against Censorship, Freemuse and several other organisations in a statement wrote “by agreeing to suppress the distribution of one politically controversial work, the Metropolitan exposes itself to future requests to suppress others, whether ‘The Ring Cycle’ or ‘Die Meistersinger’ by Wagner, or ‘The Merchant’ of Venice.”

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Standing together

It is important that artists and freedom of expression organisations stand together in the defence of artistic freedom. This is the reason artsfex was founded and why the world conference “All That Is Banned Is Desired” brought together artists, organisations, media and scholars.

The Metropolitan knee fall reminds us of the 2004 decision of closing down the play ‘Behzti’ (Dishonour) in United Kingdom. Written by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti the play which explored sexual abuse in the British Sikh community, caused controversy as it was set in a Gurdwara – a Sikh Temple. Members of the local Sikh community objected to the play and demonstrations culminated in a riot which led to theatre bosses (after pressure from the local police) closing the show – a move which launched a national debate about artistic censorship and multiculturalism. Death threats forced Gurpreet into hiding. In an interview during the world conference on artistic expression in 2012 she told how important it is artists stand together:

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Court breaks Indian police stranglehold on theatre

In India police authorities in the past couple of years have frequently closed down stage plays without consulting the courts. The political thriller ‘Ali J’ — a play produced by a Chennai group called Evam — has been in the eye of a storm lately. It was banned from being staged in three different cities after dates for the performance were announced. The play was banned from being staged in Mumbai on 6 February and in Chennai on 9 March, though it has, incidentally, already been staged in Bangalore once, in January this year. If tested in front of a court the police would probably have to allow the performances.

In another controversy, a play on the Partition of India wasn’t allowed to be staged in Bangalore, and yes, Chennai. In both cases, it was the police which called the shots in the cancellations. However, in January this year, the Supreme Court struck down those provisions of the legislation — The Tamil Nadu Dramatic Performances Act, 1964 which permitted the cops to be the sole arbiters of “suitable” drama in the first place.

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Turkey abuse laws to punish artists challenging authorities

Law suits, arrests, threats and banning orders, these are all dangers that artists in Turkey who touch on sensitive issues face today. This is pointed out by the Universal Periodic Review submission that Freemuse, Siyah Bant and the Initiative for Freedom of Expression has forwarded to the United Nation.

The Universal Periodic Review is a process under which all of the 193 member states of the UN have their human rights records reviewed, for them to report on the action they have taken towards improvements, and to hear recommendations from other member states. It is a four-year process, and Turkey’s last UPR was in May 2010.

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Don’t bite the apple

Although the late Apple founder Steve Jobs marketed himself as a ‘child of the hippie movement’, Apple seems to have applied an old fashioned Victorian morality. The Apple iBooks store continues to ban works of art featuring nudity. Recently ‘Tijuana Baby’, a novel by author Robert Haukoos, has been banned from the Apple iBooks store for “inappropriate cover art”.

Apple iBooks previously banned the French book ‘La Femme’ by Benedicte Martin. The cover of the book features a naked woman shaped into a knife. Danish writer Peter Øvig Knudsen in 2012 published books on hippies in Denmark, which featured pictures of nude grownups and was rejected as e-books by Apple.

Steve Jobs has been quoted to be driven by the desire to ensure peoples of the world easy access to art and knowledge. Publishers and customers’ experience show the opposite. Apple has become a symbol of corporate arrogance and “no comment”. As publisher Oliver Frébourg of Les Editions des Equateurs told an online news site “It’s extraordinary in the year 2014 that this kind of censorship can happen. Freedom of speech and expression in France and America may be decreed by the people and their governments, but when you are as big as Apple, you can judge a book by its cover and get away with it.”

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No sex, please – we are French

Victorian morality linked to the period of Queen Victoria in the UK inspired such titles as ‘No Sex Please, We’re British’ — a farce, which premiered in London’s West End in 1971. Did this inspire the Mayor’s office in French city Aubagne? The office dubbed the work of Marie Morel’s large-scale erotic painting L’Amour pornographic, which led to the 13th edition of the Festival International d’Art Singulier being called off by its organisers. The director stepped down, after the municipality tried to censor two works slated to be exhibited. Marie Morel characterised the incident as part of a growing trend toward excessive caution around erotic art.

“Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that works of erotic art are more and more frequently censored,” Morel wrote on her website: “The organisers are often afraid: Because of our society’s excessive vigilance, we’re reverting to a world in which our freedoms are increasingly curtailed.”

» Read more

During the past year has featured almost 50 stories of controversies related to nudity and sexuality – the list of countries include the USA, South Africa, Russia and Turkey.

» See the 50 stories

…and more censorship, trials and brutal killings

At this month you can read why Ukrainian artist Nikita Kadan is one of 80 artists forced to withdraw from the 2014 Xinjiang Biennale held in the autonomous Chinese region of Xinjiang Uyghur. The artist had been invited to participate and submitted his project ‘Procedure Room’, which pictures police torture in the Ukraine on a set of decorative plates… and how seventy years after Chechens were deported en masse to Central Asia on the orders of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, a film about the brutality of the operation has been banned, with officials citing the threat of provoking ethnic enmity… Or the story of Pashto singer Gulnaz alias Muskan who was killed in the Gulburg area of Peshawar… How Gaza theatres battle censorship and conservatism… or follow the endless hearings in the trial against rapper El Haqed in Morocco.


Fritt Ord continues to sponsor

The Norwegian Foundation Fritt Ord has generously decided to grant financial support to the publication of artsfreedom for another year. Published by Freemuse the website is the only website specialising in publishing news and background stories on violations of artistic freedom worldwide.

Ole Reitov








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