Concerning the Waterhouse incident a few weeks ago, some people argued it was an overreaction to an artist performance supported by a public museum (the Manchester Art Gallery). Well, it was not. Art and books always go first when it’s about freedom of speech and thought. We should never forget this.
The Waterhouse incident was not about political incorrectness nor about public museums bad praxis. It was about art and its power to express. Taking an artwork and suppress it from public view with the weak excuse of “opening a debate” about female sexual exploitation is censorship, because the debate will take place without that piece voice.
Some argued it was about making people uncomfortable and force them to discuss the proposed issue. So is it acceptable to force a discussion censoring one of the sides? Is it acceptable to censor to protest against censorship? If so, then it would also be acceptable to protest against war bombing indiscriminately, which -of course- is not.
What is it about?
If you found extreme the comparison between censoring a painting and bombing, then you should be reminded how authoritarianisms have begun. Censorship of art and books -when not stopped- has lead to stronger forms of human rights violations in the sake of “a greater deal”.
It is painful to see how short is our memory and how should we be constantly reminded about this matter. Many will say it is a exaggeration, but sadly it is not. A brief list of incidents may awake some memories we all wish would never repeat again:
- In the Soviet Revolution bonfire of books were a common thing since the early days; bourgeois ideas must be erased. Art didn’t elude the aggressive soviet censorship and artists like Marc Chagall and Vassily Kandinsky left the URSS due to its repressive environment towards their art.
- Nazi regime bonfires of books were common since April 1933. Every book opposing Nazi ideas must be burnt. This included Jewish, pacifists, socialists, communists religious and liberal publications. Additionally, all the so called degenerate art (Entartete Kunst) must be eradicated. Thus works by Picasso, Van Gogh, Kokoschka, Nolde, Dix, Klee, Beckmann and many more were publicly burnt by the Berlin Fire Brigade in March 1939.
- During China’s Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Zedong in 1966, thousands of books and traditional art pieces were destroyed.
- Cuban Revolution destroyed countless books considering them counter-revolutionary. Cinema is controlled by State institutions, and art is not a free form of expression.
- Augusto Pinochet’s regime proceeded to burn books about socialism and communism in Chile as early as in 1973, when he took power by a military coup.
Why art and books?
Art is and expression of ideas, a form of communication with the potential to provoque the viewer to be critical and aware of his/her reality or the danger it might enclose. Art gives the opportunity to propose alternative views of the world. This is a threat to authoritarian governments, because they pretend to impose a unique view of everything.
Literature is as dangerous as art. Where art help us visualize, literature help us states. When there are possibilities to change things, we will always seek change. When there is no way out, we tend to be submissive conformists and that is gold for a regime that does not appreciate people being vocal nor demanding.
Art and books always go first, because they are colossal obstacles to some political ideologies. They go first, because without them people loses a vast part of the ability to express and communicate. Without them our voice is diminished when not silenced.
Let’s be alert.
October 31st, 2018, will mark a hundred years since the Austrian painter Egon Schiele died. His characteristic twisted and expressive drawing style, along with the startling bodies who inhabit his canvases, still remain shocking after so many years. Their beauty cannot be denied… except for London’s and Hamburg’s Transport Offices!
“Egon Schiele, Expression and Lyricism” is exhibition which opens at the Leopold Museum on Feb. 23. Vienna’s Tourist Board worked on a campaign months ago to promote the exhibition and celebrate one of Austria most renowned artists of the 20th Century. It turned out to be too explicit for London and Berlin authorities.
They argued “trepidation about depicting genitals in public space”. It made us wonder if such places as London’s National Gallery or Hamburg’s Museums are not public spaces? Well, they are and they proudly exhibit masterpieces of nudity like: The Judgement of Paris (1632-35) by Peter Paul Rubens and Angelica saved by Ruggiero (1819-39) by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres in the NG and various works portraying nude figures by Jan Massys, Ernst Ludwing Kirchner and even Rembrandt in the Hamburger Kunsthalle, just to mention a teeny tiny part of nudes and nudity related art pieces in their collections.
This situation with Schiele masterpieces must seem a mere anecdote, but be aware of the dangers behind it. There is no such thing as “an innocent act of censorship”. Vienna’s Tourist Board modified the campaign adding a message that is still powerful enough to catch the eye. They cover the sensitive part of Schiele’s works with a banner that reads: “SORRY, 100 years old but still too daring today.”
But let’s not get used to this. Even if those banner made clear there’s a problem and the use of the hashtag #ToArtItsFreedom (#DerKunstihreFreiheit) on social media spread the word, please do not forget that art and book always go first.